Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

Cushing’s disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s syndrome, is a common endocrine disorder affecting dogs. This condition occurs when the adrenal glands produce an excessive amount of the hormone cortisol. The cortisol hormone is referred to as the “stress” hormone and is associated with the “flight or flight” response. While cortisol is crucial for various bodily functions, an excess cortisol can lead to a variety of health issues. We will explore the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for Cushing’s disease in dogs, and focus on how you can support your dog with this disease with diet and nutrition.

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cushing's disease in dogs

What is Cushing’s disease in Dogs?

Cushing’s disease in dogs occurs when the adrenal glands overproduce cortisol, often due to a tumor or abnormality in the pituitary gland. Cortisol is responsible for regulating metabolism, the immune system, and responding to stress. It is controlled by the adrenal cortex, located on the outer layer of the adrenal glands, situated in front of the kidneys. The pituitary gland, found at the base of the brain, releases adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol, also called glucocorticoids.

When a pet has Cushing’s disease, a tumor usually on the pituitary gland, causes the cortex to release an excess amount of cortisol. An excess of cortisol disrupts the body’s balance, leading to a range of symptoms and when its production becomes excessive, it can lead to detrimental effects on a dog’s health.

Some breeds, such as, the Poodle, Daschund, Boston Terrier, Boxer, and Beagle are at higher risk for developing Cushing’s disease. The disease is sometimes referred to as an “aging” disease as it most commonly develops in late adulthood.

excess cortisol from cushing's disease

Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs:

  1. Increased thirst and urination: Dogs with Cushing’s disease often exhibit excessive drinking and urination.
  2. Weight gain: Dogs may gain weight despite a reduced appetite or increased hunger. Weight gain in the abdominal area is the most common.
  3. Excessive Panting.
  4. Hair loss and thinning coat and skin: Dogs may develop thinning fur, particularly on their flanks, belly, and tail.
  5. Muscle weakness and lethargy: Dogs may experience muscle wasting, leading to weakness and reduced mobility.
  6. Abdominal distension: Enlargement of the abdomen due to the accumulation of fat is common.
  7. Skin infections: Dogs may develop frequent skin infections or slow-healing wounds.

Diagnosis

lethargic dog

If your pet is exhibiting any of the above signs of Cushing’s disease, or if Cushing’s disease is suspected, your Veterinarian will most likely run a series of blood and urine tests including an ACTH stimulation test or the dexamethasone suppression test, which can confirm the presence of the disease. 24-hour urinary free cortisol test, late-night salivary cortisol, and low or high-dose dexamethasone test. These tests along with a review of your dog’s medical history, a physical exam, and potential imaging will confirm if your dog does in fact have Cushing’s disease or not.

Causes of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs:

There are three primary causes of Cushing’s disease in dogs:

  1. Pituitary-dependent: This form of Cushing’s disease is the most common, consisting of 80-85% of the dogs diagnosed with the disease. It occurs due to a benign tumor in the pituitary gland called pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism (PDH).
  2. Adrenal-dependent: In some cases, an adrenal tumor can be responsible for excessive cortisol production, this makes up 15-20% of cases. Adrenal-dependent hyperadrenocorticism (ADH) can be benign or cancerous, and the chances are equally probable.
  3. Iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome: Prolonged administration of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, dexamethasone, or DepoMedrol, can lead to Cushing’s-like symptoms. These drugs are commonly used to treat immune disorders, cancers, skin diseases and/or allergies.

Treatments for Cushing’s Disease in Dogs:

Treatment options for Cushing’s disease in dogs depend on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. They may include:

  1. Medication: Veterinarians often prescribe medications to manage Cushing’s disease, such as trilostane (Vetoryl) or mitotane (Lysodren), which help regulate cortisol levels.
  2. Surgery: In cases where a tumor is present, surgical removal may be recommended.
  3. Radiation therapy: This treatment option may be used in certain cases to target pituitary or adrenal tumors.

Nutritional Support for Dogs with Cushing’s Disease:

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While nutrition and diet will not cure a dog with Cushing’s disease, proper nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting dogs dealing with this disease and helping prevent it from causing additional complications.

The stage that your dog is at in regards to the disease plays a factor in diet recommendations. For example, dogs tend to have an increased appetite in the early stages of Cushing’s which is when you want to watch their calorie intake. While at the late stage, they often lose their appetite and at that point you want to ensure they stay nourished.

Maintaining a healthy body weight is important in helping manage the disease and preventing some of the other health concerns associated with Cushing’s such as diabetes.

how to feed a dog w cushing's

In general, here are some dietary considerations that are important at all stages.

High-Quality Protein Diet

For dogs with Cushing’s disease, a diet that includes high-quality protein is important for several reasons. Here are a few key reasons:

  1. Muscle maintenance: High-quality protein provides essential amino acids necessary for maintaining and repairing muscle tissue. Dogs with Cushing’s disease may experience muscle wasting and weakness, so ensuring an adequate intake of protein can help preserve muscle mass and strength.
  2. Nutritional support: Dogs with Cushing’s disease may have an increased metabolic rate and nutrient requirements. High-quality protein sources can supply vital nutrients and energy to support their overall health and immune system function.
  3. Weight management: Cushing’s disease can lead to weight gain and redistribution of body fat. Including high-quality protein in the diet can help promote satiety, control appetite, and support healthy weight management for dogs with this condition.
  4. Tissue healing: Protein is crucial for wound healing and tissue repair. If a dog with Cushing’s disease has any skin issues or other complications that require healing, adequate protein intake can aid in the recovery process.
choose protein

Low Carbohydrates

By feeding a low carbohydrate diet, you can help regulate your dog’s blood sugar levels and prevent spikes in insulin. This is beneficial because high carbohydrate intake can exacerbate the symptoms of Cushing’s disease and contribute to weight gain, muscle loss, and other complications.

choose carbs
Carbs should come from fruits and veggies.

Additionally, a low carbohydrate diet may assist in maintaining a healthy body weight for dogs with Cushing’s disease, as excess weight can further strain their already compromised endocrine system.

Furthermore, poor carbohydrates can have an inflammatory effect and lead to symptoms of bloating. Given a symptom of the disease is bloating, this would only contribute to disease complications.

Limited Fat Intake

A low-fat diet (less than 12% DM) is often recommended for dogs with Cushing’s disease for several reasons:

  1. Weight management: Cushing’s disease can cause weight gain and the accumulation of body fat, particularly in the abdominal area. A low-fat diet can help manage and control your dog’s weight, reducing the strain on their joints and overall health.
  2. Lipid metabolism: Dogs with Cushing’s disease may experience disruptions in their lipid metabolism and are predisposed to hyperlipidemia (abnormally elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides), which can lead to abnormal fat deposits. By reducing the fat intake in their diet, you can help alleviate these issues and promote a healthier lipid balance.
  3. Pancreatic health: Excessive fat consumption can put additional stress on the pancreas, potentially leading to inflammation or pancreatitis. Dogs with Cushing’s disease are already at a higher risk of developing pancreatitis, so a low-fat diet can help minimize this risk and support pancreatic health. Read more about Pancreatitis in Dogs
  4. Hormonal balance: Cushing’s disease is characterized by an overproduction of cortisol, a steroid hormone. High-fat diets can contribute to further hormone imbalances and exacerbate the symptoms of the condition. A low-fat diet can help maintain a more stable hormonal environment.

Low Sodium

Cushing’s disease can lead to increased water consumption and urinary output. High-sodium foods can exacerbate these symptoms and may contribute to increased thirst and fluid retention.

Regular Feeding Schedule

Establishing a consistent feeding routine helps manage weight and stabilize blood sugar levels.

What Not To Feed A Dog With Cushing’s Disease

Kibble and Processed Foods Bad For Dogs With Cushing’s disease

Dogs with Cushing’s should avoid processed foods. Luckily, there are now easy, healthier options for pet owners who do not have the time to make a homemade diet.

Consider one of these two great options:

Nutritional Supplements

Supporting the adrenal glands and hormone balance can provide support in managing Cushing’s disease. There are several nutritional supplements that provide such support. Here is a list of supplements:

Adrenal Support

By supporting the adrenal glands, it is possible to help manage the symptoms associated with Cushing’s disease, such as excessive thirst and urination, hair loss, weight gain, and muscle weakness. It can also contribute to improving the overall well-being and quality of life for dogs with this condition. By providing support to the adrenal glands, the aim is to help restore their proper functioning and balance cortisol levels.

Lignans

Lignans are a type of polyphenolic compound found in various plants, particularly in seeds and certain plant fibers. They are phytochemicals that serve as natural antioxidants and are known for their potential health benefits. Lignans are characterized by their unique chemical structure, composed of two phenylpropane units linked together. They can be found in foods such as flaxseeds, sesame seeds, whole grains, legumes, and berries. Lignans have been studied for their potential role in reducing the risk of certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and hormone-related conditions.

Lignans, together with melatonin, can slow down the progression of and provide relief from the pain and symptoms associated with canine Cushing’s disease, atypical Cushing’s disease, and diabetes in dogs. Veterinarians often suggest using flax hull lignans to address Alopecia X in dogs, which is a form of baldness commonly seen in pets with hormone imbalances, such as those caused by Cushing’s disease.

This product assists in restoring normal skin and coat conditions, facilitates the return of regular thirst and urination patterns, aids in the recovery of a dog’s normal weight and appetite, restores the dog’s energy levels, and effectively reduces cortisol levels by inhibiting the 3-beta HSD enzyme.

Read about Dr. Jack Oliver from the University of Tennessee treatment recommendations for Cushing’s disease including lignans and melatonin.

Dandelion Root

Surprisingly, the common weed known as Dandelion has the potential to normalize the functioning of the adrenal glands. Dandelion root contains an array of minerals such as phosphorus and iron that regulate healthy adrenal gland function and promote kidney, liver, and digestive tract health- all the while encouraging the growth of skin and fur. Dogs with Cushing’s disease can experience a reduction in muscle weakness, hair loss, and stress-induced panting shortly after incorporating dandelion into their treatment regimen.

Organs & Glandulars

Adding glandular and organ meats to a dog’s diet can potentially provide benefits for managing Cushing’s disease. Glandular and organ meats, such as liver, kidney, and adrenal gland, contain essential nutrients and bioactive compounds that can support the overall health and function of the adrenal glands.

These meats are rich in natural substances, including peptides, enzymes, and cofactors that may aid in restoring adrenal gland balance and function. They can provide vital nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, which are necessary for the proper functioning of the adrenal glands and overall hormonal balance.

Additionally, glandular and organ meats are often included in a raw or fresh food diet for dogs. This type of diet focuses on providing biologically appropriate and nutrient-dense foods, mimicking what dogs would eat in the wild. It can offer a well-rounded nutritional profile and potentially support adrenal health.

View our List of Homemade Recipes For Dogs with Cushing’s Disease.

Supporting A Dog With Cushing’s disease

Cushing’s disease in dogs is a complex condition that requires proper diagnosis and management. Recognizing the symptoms, understanding the causes, and exploring treatment options are crucial for providing the best care for your furry friend. Additionally, supporting your dog’s nutrition by following a specialized diet can contribute to their overall well-being and help manage the symptoms of Cushing’s disease. Always consult with your veterinarian to develop a tailored approach that meets your dog’s specific needs.

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