Cushing’s disease is a result of the body producing too much cortisol (hormone). Cortisol is produced and stored by the adrenals: two small glands that sit on top of the kidneys. Dogs, cats, horses, and humans can get Cushing’s disease.

It is more commonly found in dogs, than in cats or horses.

If you suspect that your pet has Cushing’s Disease

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Cushing’s disease is caused by excess cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol is a hormone produced by two small bean-shaped glands, that sit near the kidneys, called ‘adrenal glands‘. Cortisol is secreted in times of stress to increase blood sugar levels, to help the body cope it.

Cortisol becomes a problem when it is produced in excess by the adrenal glands, or when your pet (it can also affect humans) is receiving too much from an outside source. Common steroid drugs are prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone and hydrocortisone among others.

Cushing’s disease causes

  • High blood sugar
  • Depression of the immune system
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Muscle loss, panting
  • Pot belly
  • Flaky, scaly skin
  • Hair loss

In addition to drugs, cortisol can be made in excess by the body, as well. The most common way this occurs in dogs is from a small tumor in the brain, specifically on the pituitary gland that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol. In a smaller percentage of dogs there is a tumor on the adrenal gland that is producing the cortisol excessively even when no more is needed. Cushing’s usually affects older dogs, therefore often times the clinical signs can be confused with normal aging changes, as they can be slowly progressive. The typical signs that you might notice at home are ravenous appetite, increased thirst and urination to the point of having urinary accidents in the house, weight gain, pot belly appearance, thin skin, excessive panting, thinning hair and unhealthy skin.


If your pet’s veterinarian suspects Cushing’s disease, he or she might recommend a complete blood count, chemistry and urine analysis to evaluate the overall health of your pet. Additional tests to look specifically for Cushing’s may also be recommended. Obtaining a diagnosis is not always easy and in some cases, an abdominal ultrasound can be a helpful tool in diagnosis.

A more detailed list of symptoms associated with Cushing’s disease in dogs:

  • Increased thirst and urination (polydipsia and polyuria, respectively)
  • Urinating at night or having accidents
  • Increased hunger
  • Increased panting
  • Pot-bellied abdomen
  • Obesity
  • Fat pads on the neck and shoulders
  • Loss of hair
  • Lack of energy
  • Muscle weakness
  • Infertility
  • Darkening of the skin
  • Thin skin
  • Bruising
  • Hard, white scaly patches on the skin, elbows, etc. (associated with the disease calcinosis cutis)

If your pet is found to have Cushing’s disease, therapy would likely include lifelong medications, as Cushing’s is not curable, but in most cases can be medically managed.  Be sure to discuss potential side effects from the medications with your veterinarian. Well managed patients with Cushing’s disease can live a normal life for years.  However, close monitoring and frequent veterinary visits are needed.

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