Cushing’s Disease (hyperadrenocorticism) in Canines. What are the Symptoms and the best way to care for your dog. By Deborah Shores, DVM

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What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease or hyperadrenocorticism is caused when your dog’s adrenal gland produces excess amounts of the hormone cortisol, leading to a multitude of issues. Cushing’s disease is one of the most common endocrine diseases and affects mainly older dogs. 

Now, what exactly is cortisol? Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone. It is designed to be only be released occasionally and in small amounts. When your dog’s body needs cortisol, the adrenal glands start producing the hormone, which triggers a release of glucose (sugar) from the liver. This sugar provides energy to the cells to allow your dog to deal with the stressful situation. Cortisol also contributes to other important functions in your dog’s body, including blood pressure, immune system function, and metabolism. Unfortunately, your dog’s body is not designed to handle large amounts of cortisol, so overproduction of cortisol results in a multitude of issues. 
When the adrenal glands overproduce, it could be a symptom of chronic stress, if your dog is constantly releasing cortisol. Your dog’s body does not distinguish between different types of stress however.  Note His physiological response will be the same to a visit to the groomer and dealing with a cancerous tumor. 

The most common cause of Cushing’s is a benign pituitary tumor or enlargement of the gland. The pituitary gland is responsible for hormone production in the entire body. Approximately 85% of Cushing’s cases are caused by a pituitary tumor. In the remaining 15% of cases, the tumor affects the adrenal gland. 

Some breeds are prone to developing Cushing’s disease. These breeds include Poodles, Beagles, Jack Russells, Boxers, and Yorkshire Terriers. 

Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease

Symptoms of Cushing’s disease progress slowly and can be easily mistaken for normal aging. Additionally, many symptoms are not unique to Cushing’s and can be symptoms of other diseases as well. 

One of the most common early symptoms is increased urination. Sometimes this is attributed to urinary tract infections or simply old age. Another common symptom is weight gain. Increased levels of cortisol can cause appetite increase. At the same time, cortisol relaxes your dog’s abdominal walls, which leads to the distended appearance. The excess of cortisol also causes a dry, brittle hair coat.  

Symptoms include:

  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Excessive drinking and urination
  • Hair loss
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Distended, “pot-belly” abdomen
  • Obesity
  • Insomnia
  • Increased hunger
  • Excessive panting

Dogs with Cushing’s Disease often have low energy, weak immune systems and seem tired all the time. High levels of cortisol in the body contribute to more infections and other problems in the body like bladder infections and dental disease.

The average life span with medical treatment is approximately two years, however it ultimately depends on each individual patient. 

Treatment for Cushing’s Disease

Dogs with both benign and malignant adrenal tumors can be surgically removed in most cases. Some pituitary tumors respond well to radiation treatment. 

Most dogs with pituitary Cushing’s are treated with a variety of different drugs. These protocols are complex and require close monitoring by your veterinarian. Many of the side effects of Cushing’s medications are quite severe and can be toxic. Some dogs benefit from these and some do not.  If your dog is diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, it is best to consult with a holistic veterinarian for drug-free treatment options. Some dogs can manage the disease using a combination of therapies. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, the Kidney meridian and the Triple Heater meridian help to regulate the adrenal glands. Acupuncture has been successfully used to improve not only quality of life for dogs with Cushing’s disease, it can help regulate cortisol production and control the disease without medications. Xue Hai acupoint is an important immune-enhancing point in dogs.(1) 

Immune support is very important for the Cushing’s patient. Elimay’s Omegas supplement has Omega-3 fatty acids that support body and normal cell metabolism as well as ensuring joint support and a healthy coat. This is an excellent supplement for Cushing’s patients with poor skin and hair loss. Elimay’s Immunity supplement may also be beneficial in boosting your dog’s immune system with herbs such as Echinacea, Astragalus, and Reishi.  Elimay’s Longevity will give your dog a boost of energy with Vitamin B2, B6, and B12. 

Prevention of Cushing’s Disease

It is thought that Cushing’s Disease may be caused by genetics and not lifestyle. Although there is not a guaranteed way to prevent Cushing’s from affecting your canine friend in the future, it’s possible that these things may help. 

  • Limit simple carbohydrates and sugars. These can trigger quick insulin release, which in turn can trigger cortisol release. 
  • Exercise your dog to combat stress. Exercise releases endorphins which helps lower stress.
  • Feed a quality, low-grain, life stage-appropriate diet to keep your dog’s immune system as healthy as possible.


(1)  Schoen, A. Veterinary Acupuncture: Ancient Art to Modern Medicine. American Veterinary Publications, Inc. 1994. p. 124, 142.

About Deborah Shores, DVM

Dr. Deborah Shores is a graduate of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She has many years of experience working in animal hospitals and clinics from Virginia to South Carolina, treating mainly dogs and cats. She has a special interest in nutrition and holistic veterinary medicine and plans to pursue an acupuncture certificate at the Chi Institute in Florida. She has two cats and recently lost her 8 year-old Australian Shepard to liver cancer. 

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