A Guide To Understanding Cushing’s Disease In Dogs

by Amber

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Do you ever feel like you need a degree in veterinary science to understand exactly what’s happening with your dog’s health? With two dogs with varying health concerns, I know how you feel. You want to do what’s best for your dog, but that gets a whole lot harder when a recent diagnosis or health concern comes with words like “hepatic steatosis,” “polydipsia,” or “dexamethasone.” All of those terms have something to do with a chronic liver disease called hyperadrenocorticism. You might know this better as Cushing’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome. A good vet will always be your best resource when it comes to understanding this serious condition. But doing your own research is part of being a responsible pup parent. So from dog mom to dog mom/dad, here’s an easy to understand breakdown of what Cushing’s disease is and what you can do to help your dog.

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What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease is a chronic disease that occurs in people, dogs, cats, and other animals. It’s a result of an increased production of a hormone called cortisol. Made in the adrenal glands (located on top of kidneys), cortisol is often called the “stress hormone.” It’s most famous for regulating emotions including stress, motivation, and fear. The “fight or flight” response is all thanks to cortisol. It helps the brain manage stress.

Along with stress response, cortisol also serves several other purposes. It reduces inflammation, regulates blood pressure, and plays a role in how the body utilizes carbs, fats, and proteins. Cortisol has a lot of important jobs to do, but the trouble comes in when the adrenal glands start overproducing. Too much cortisol in the body can lead to a number of complications (we’ll get to those later). The important thing to know right now is that when the body produces too much cortisol, it’s called hyperadrenocorticism–Cushing’s disease.

What Causes Cushing’s Disease?

The canine body is highly regulated, and it won’t start overproducing cortisol willy-nilly. Something has to trigger that malfunction. There are three different kinds of Cushing’s disease in dogs. They’re designated by what causes the overproduction of cortisol.

Cushing's disease is dogs

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Here’s a quick breakdown:

Pituitary-Dependent Hyperadrenocorticism (PDH): This is the most common type of Cushing’s disease. It’s responsible for 80-85% of all canine cases. It happens when there’s a problem with the pituitary gland. This gland is located in the bottom center of your dog’s brain (humans have them too) and is responsible for producing important hormones. PDH happens when there is a tumor (typically non-cancerous) on the pituitary gland. The tumor disrupts the gland’s function, interferes with communication between glands, and causes the adrenal gland to make too much cortisol.

Adrenal Gland Tumor: Occasionally, a tumor will grow on the adrenal gland itself. The tumor is usually benign (non cancerous), but there’s the chance it could be malignant (cancerous).

Prolonged Use of Steroids: Veterinarians often prescribe steroids to dogs to treat a number of different conditions. Steroids can be effective treatments, but they also come with side effects. Prolonged use can trigger an overproduction of cortisol that leads to Cushing’s disease. It’s called iatrogenic Cushing’s disease, and it’s the most rare out of the three different types.

Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease can potentially be prevented, but there’s no concrete way to prevent a tumor from forming on either the pituitary gland or adrenal gland. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things that you have almost no control over. So don’t beat yourself up if you find out your dog has a tumor that has caused Cushing’s disease. Instead of obsessing over what you could have done to prevent it (because there’s probably nothing you could have done), focus on how you’re going to move forward. That is the one thing you can control.

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Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease

When it comes to Cushing’s disease, identifying symptoms is tricky. Many of the signs of this disease are also related to completely different illnesses. Sometimes they’re so subtle, you don’t notice them. The best way to determine if your dog is showing signs of Cushing’s disease is to talk with a vet. And remember, even if your dog is showing some of these signs, that doesn’t automatically mean a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease is in your future.

These are the most common symptoms vets tell us to watch out for:

  • Increased thirst (polydipsia)
  • Increased urination (polyuria)
  • Loss of hair
  • Thin skin
  • Darkening of the skin
  • Pot-bellied abdomen
  • Increased panting
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased hunger


The only way to diagnosis your dog with Cushing’s disease is to visit your vet. After analyzing all the symptoms, your vet might decide to perform a urine test that looks at hormone ratios. If that test comes back with high levels of cortisol, the next step is usually a blood sample. The test is called a low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (LDDST), and it basically tests cortisol regulation in the blood. There also might be ultrasounds or chest x-rays to determine if there is a tumor and if it’s benign or malignant.


Receiving a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease can feel devastating, but there are plenty of dogs that go on to live long and happy lives as long as they receive the right treatment. Treatment will vary depending on what kind of disease your dog has. Pituitary gland tumors are typically treated with medications, and adrenal gland tumors require surgery. Things get more complicated if those tumors are malignant. Dogs with iatrogenic Cushing’s disease are weaned off steroids.

If your dog is being treated for pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease, they will be on medication for the rest of their life. Sometimes those drugs have side effects, and it’s important to continue to monitor their health and behavior.

Natural Supplements to Support Dogs with Cushing’s Disease

There are also several natural supplements that are known to support dogs with Cushing’s disease. Natural solutions have fewer (if any) side effects compared to prescription drugs. Often times, these supplements can be used at the same time as traditional treatments, but it’s important to ask your vet’s advice before changing your dog’s treatment plan.

One of the best natural supplements to fight Cushing’s disease is milk thistle. This is a medicinal plant that has been used for both humans and pets for decades. Its prime use is to normalize enzymes in the liver and regenerate liver cells. It’s good for dogs with Cushing’s disease, because along with other complications, increased cortisol often leads to elevated liver enzymes (fatty liver disease/hepatic steatosis) that can make symptoms of Cushing’s disease worse. A regular supplement including milk thistle supports the liver to bring about better overall health.

Riley’s Essentials Hepato Essentials is made with milk thistle as its main ingredient. It’s formulated for advanced liver support for both dogs and cats. It’s trusted by pet parents who are battling Cushing’s disease in their dogs and winning.

Remember, you are your dog’s biggest advocate. Understanding these health concerns will help you make informed decisions for their well-being. Talk to your vet, research from credible sources, and hug your pup tight!

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