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Cushing’s Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Cushing's Disease in Dogs

Have you heard of dogs having Cushing’s disease? If not, you may want to become more familiar with it because I have had the misfortune to have three dogs who have had Cushing’s within the last five years. Now, you may think that isn’t so odd, but it is when you realize all three dogs are from different litters and are different ages. That changes the game, doesn’t it? In this article, I’ll tell you my story of how Cushing’s disease has affected my fur babies and what we did to treat the syndrome and help with the symptoms.

What is Cushing’s Disease?

First, let’s discuss what Cushing’s disease is because it can seem complicated if you look at the medical literature. Basically, this happens when the adrenal glands work in overdrive and produce more hormones than they should. It means your pup has overactive adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands are located near the kidneys. They take care of some vital processes and regulate functions that sustain your dog’s life. One substance you’ll recognize is cortisol. If too much or too little cortisol gets produced, it can be life-threatening for your pet.


When you get a diagnosis of Cushing’s, one of the first things you do is look for a cause. Did you feed them the wrong foods or treats? What got missed along the way? An important point to remember is that you likely did nothing wrong, and even being an observant pet parent can leave you scratching your head wondering how this happened. There are several types of Cushing’s disease, and each has a different cause. The three types are:

  • Pituitary gland tumor: This is the most common cause of Cushing’s disease. It can be benign or malignant. The tumor causes the dog’s pituitary gland to produce too much of the hormone that helps the adrenal gland make cortisol.
  • Adrenal gland tumor: There may be a tumor on the adrenal glands. Again, this can be benign or malignant and is usually removed surgically if your vet recommends the procedure.
  • Excessive cortisol from steroid use: If your dog has gotten repeated steroids, there is a chance of developing Cushing’s disease.


The symptoms may happen gradually and can often be overlooked. One of the signs is bloating. As with my dogs, I began to notice some swelling, which at first I chalked up to overeating. My fur babies all appreciate a good meal and even better snacks. I thought maybe I had gone overboard with all the delicious treats I liked to give them. Then my friends began to comment on how one of my dogs looked like a pot-bellied pig, even though this was a Chihuahua.

Another sign you may notice is panting, which mimics anxiety. My typically good-natured pup began to pant often and sometimes so hard that I became concerned. I thought she needed medication for anxiety, but it took so much medicine to slow the panting down that I had concerns about that, too. The same dog began to develop dark spots on her coat and started getting bladder infections. She had never had trouble with this in the past.

Then, my large dog began to have skin issues that wouldn’t heal no matter what I did. This is another sign of Cushing’s disease. We would get medication, go for veterinarian visits, and use every ointment approved for dogs, but to no avail.


When my dogs got diagnosed with Cushing’s, it wasn’t always a straightforward process. You see, one showed typical signs, so our veterinarian had some suspicions that Cushing’s was most likely the culprit. Our small dog started eating everything in sight, including pushing his siblings out of the way to eat their food, too. It was like he couldn’t get satiated. Our vet ran the ACTH stimulation test and the low-dose dexamethasone suppression test on him, and they both were positive.

Sometimes abdominal ultrasounds are used to see the adrenal glands. These tests can reveal small tumors if they are present. Sometimes an ultrasound will show how distended the belly is, and it gives a better view of the swelling that can take place.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though. What if your dog has all the tests and nothing shows up that definitively shows Cushing’s disease? Yes, I have experienced that, too. One of our small dogs started showing some signs that concerned us, like frequent panting and drinking copious amounts of water. She had the usual tests and looked completely healthy on paper. Fortunately, we have a fantastic vet who told us he believed she has what’s considered atypical Cushing’s disease. That’s where the clinical signs are present even when the tests are within normal limits.


So, you and your veterinarian have had the discussion, and the diagnosis is Cushing’s disease. What happens now? Treatment usually depends on the type of Cushing’s. If your pup has a Pituitary tumor, it’s typically treated with trilostane or mitotane. We have had two dogs react very well to trilostane, but our chihuahua did not. For some reason, the medicine made him lethargic, and he couldn’t take it.

An adrenal tumor may require surgery. If it’s successful and the tumor is benign, your dog may return to normal health. Surgery is not always an option, depending on your dog’s age and health. Sometimes your vet may suggest management of the condition with medications, instead.

If your dog has had too many steroids and has developed Cushing’s, the treatment is to discontinue the steroids. These medications will need to be tapered down slowly to avoid complications. That can be a double-edged sword. The issue the steroids were treating will most likely come back.

Since we’ve had three dogs with Cushing’s you may be wondering what in the world we did wrong. We wondered the same. Here’s another tricky wrench that gets thrown into the mix. These dogs were on different foods and as mentioned, from different litters and all three different breeds. The truth is, we honestly don’t know how this happened, but we were left doing tons of research to make sure our pups had the best lives possible.

Holistic Options

Now, if you’re the type of pet parent who doesn’t always like to give your fur baby lots of pharmaceuticals, I can relate. Although two of our babies have done well on them, we had the one that didn’t thrive on medication. We couldn’t imagine sitting idly by watching him get worse, so we went to work finding out everything we could on natural options. We spoke to our vet and he was on board.

Food is Medicine

You already know how a healthy diet helps you feel better. We learned that our pets are no different. We changed their diets to higher protein ratios to prevent the muscle loss that often accompanies Cushing’s disease.

We began cooking food for our fur babies, too. You can use an instant pot to prepare gently cooked meats with veggies and a little rice to fill your dog’s tummy with healthy ingredients. Run your meal plan by your trusted vet to be sure it’s okay for your specific pup’s health needs.

Supplements truly made a world of difference for our dogs. Once we had a game plan of specific supplements, we showed it to our veterinarian, and he agreed that they could be beneficial.Your list may be different, but some things we found helpful were:

  • Melatonin to regular hormones and maintain a healthy coat.
  • Lignums help with the downregulation of estrogen production to help manage the disease.
  • Milk thistle protects the liver, which can often be affected by Cushing’s.
  • Probiotics for better gut health since we have learned that gut health can be a biomarker for overall wellness.


Although there is no medical treatment that can cure Cushing’s disease, it’s possible to control it for many years. You can also give your dog a quality lifespan if you have a plan and work with your vet. If your pup has a benign tumor, surgery may fix the problem.

We still have two dogs thriving despite being diagnosed with this awful disease. Sadly, we lost our sweet Chi baby several years after he was diagnosed, but he had the worst case of it. I can say without a doubt that we gave him a great life, and our vet’s recommendations, along with a nutritious diet and supplements helped tremendously.

We hope this article encourages you if your beloved pet has been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease. If curing the disease isn’t an option, management often can be successful with the right tools. Do your research and always consult your vet before changing your dog’s medications or diet. Our babies have lived a longer, healthier life due to nutritional modifications and the right medicines combined. At Jeffers, we are here to help you find the foods and supplements your fur baby needs to live the best life possible. Come talk to one of our knowledgeable reps for more information.