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Cushing’s Disease, also known as Cushing’s Syndrome and hyperadrenocorticism, is a condition that causes a dog’s adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol. This is caused by either a tumor in the pituitary gland or the adrenal gland. Too much cortisol lowers a dog’s immune system, predisposing them to infectious diseases. It also causes muscular weakness, weight gain, and increased drinking and urination and can leave dogs at a greater risk for other health conditions as well.
Most dogs with Cushing’s Disease are over the age of 6 when they are diagnosed, although the condition can impact younger dogs as well. Cushing’s can impact cats as well, but it’s less common in cats.
Cushing’s is more common in females than males. While Cushing’s can affect any dog, there are specific breeds prone to developing Cushing’s Disease, including:
Cushing’s Disease: Signs and Symptoms
One of the most common symptoms of Cushing’s is excessive thirst and more frequent urination. Both symptoms can be indicators of many different canine health problems, which can make diagnosing hyperadrenocorticism more difficult. Common signs of Cushing’s include:
Drinking more water than usual or drinking more often
Sleeping more often
Noticeable weakness in legs
A visible potbelly
Animals with CD can experience a thinning of the skin as well. Diagnosing the condition early is important but can be a lengthy process as many symptoms develop over a year. Pet parents should be aware that dogs with Cushing’s are also at risk for developing diabetes, kidney problems, pancreatitis, blood clots, and high blood pressure.
Does Cushing’s Disease cause hind leg weakness in dogs?
Hind leg weakness in dogs with Cushing’s Disease is common. In Cushing’s excessive cortisol causes muscles to weaken which can make it difficult for a dog with Cushing’s to stand up unassisted or climb the stairs. In some cases, a dog with Cushing’s can experience paw knuckling, especially in their back legs, and may also walk with stiff legs.
Changes in a dog’s mobility and leg strength can occur with any number of canine mobility conditions, including getting older. Although muscle loss and hind leg weakness are common in dogs with CD, you will need to speak with your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.
Are Dogs in Pain?
Most dogs with Cushing’s are not in any pain and their symptoms can be easily managed through medication. Dogs that have developed the condition due to a tumor on the adrenal gland may require the tumor to be surgically removed as these tumors are aggressive.
Luckily, most dogs with Cushing’s can be treated with very few side effects and remain pain-free. Once diagnosed with Cushing’s your dog will need to be monitored closely to watch for signs of any other health issues that may develop.
Dogs with Cushing’s heal slower than a healthy dog would. If your dog is injured or unwell, expect a longer recovery period and a need for increased vigilance during the healing period for any complications or pain.
Does Cushing’s Cause Blindness in Dogs?
Dogs with Cushing’s Syndrome are at an increased risk for going blind. A side effect of this condition includes immunodeficiencies that lead to a high risk of corneal disease. Both conditions can cause a dog to lose their eyesight. There are similarities and correlations between dogs with Cushing’s and dogs experiencing sudden blindness from SARDS. The main difference between the two is that there are some treatments available for dogs with Cushing’s, whereas SARDS has no known cure.
The Early Stages: What You Need to Know
At the earliest stages of the disease, the signs of Cushing’s Syndrome are very easy to misdiagnose as the normal signs of aging. The symptoms of CD develop slowly, it can take as long as a year for the symptoms to become noticeable. Early signs of Cushing’s Disease often include drinking more water, peeing more, and weakening back legs. A dog may experience one or more of these symptoms and the change can be insignificant at the beginning.
Pay attention to any change in your dog’s behavior. Don’t assume that your dog is sleeping more just because they’re older. Note changes in your dog’s routine and keep your veterinarian informed.
What to Expect If Your Dog Has Cushing’s Disease
If your dog has developed Cushing’s due to steroid administration, the good news is that once you stop giving steroids, the signs resolve. In most cases, however, Cushing’s Disease is a chronic, progressive disease, which means it will worsen over time. Luckily, the disease progresses slowly. If your dog has pituitary-dependent Cushing’s, there is no cure available, only medical management, which means that pet owners need to understand that some forms of Cushing’s are a long-term condition that will require regular medical care over the remainder of your dog’s life.
Medication will usually not cure your dog, but it will help manage their symptoms. Some of the newer medications available have a very low incidence of side effects, and in some cases, after extended administration, require lower doses, or in a best-case scenario, your dog may be able to cease medications after a couple of years – it all depends on the dog. If your dog is under treatment for Cushing’s disease, follow all instructions from your veterinarian regarding patient follow-up and monitoring. This is important because the dosage may need to be adjusted. It is also important to watch your dog’s symptoms and check for signs that their health is deteriorating or their symptoms are worsening, and call your veterinarian if that happens.
What is the Life Expectancy for a Dog with Cushing’s Disease?
Statistically, dogs diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease do experience a shorter lifespan. Because Cushing’s Syndrome lowers a dog’s natural immunity, they are at a greater risk for developing other health conditions that can impact a dog’s life span. However, with newer treatments available, dogs that are diagnosed with Cushing’s and treated appropriately are enjoying longer and better lives than ever – yay science! Since Cushing’s is most common amongst senior dogs, in many cases the dog passes from old age, not the disease itself.
Guest Author: Dr. Sarah J. Wooten DVM, CVJ
Dr. Sarah J. Wooten DVM, CVJ is a small animal veterinarian, writer, public speaker, and established leader in veterinary medicine. Her passion in writing and speaking from the heart on client communication and service.