By Ahmira Torres, DVM, DACVIM (Internal Medicine)

Have you noticed your dog being ravenous lately? Drinking more water than normal? Asking to go outside more frequently? Are they having urinary accidents in the house? Do they seem more lethargic? Having skin issues? Those are some of the signs of Cushing’s disease.

Cushing’s disease is a “catch-all” term for the signs caused by excess cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by two small bean-shaped glands that sit near the kidneys called adrenal glands. Cortisol is secreted in times of stress to increase the blood sugar; thus, helping the body cope better with stress. Sugar is a source of fuel readily used by the tissues.

Cortisol becomes a problem when produced in excess by the adrenal glands or when a pet or person (it can also affect humans) is receiving too much from an outside source. Some of the common steroid drugs are prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone and hydrocortisone among others. In excess, it causes high blood sugar, depression of the immune system, increased thirst, increased hunger, muscle loss, panting, a pot belly, poor skin and many others.

In addition to drugs, cortisol can be made in excess by the body, as well. The most common way this occurs in dogs is from a small tumor in the brain, specifically on the pituitary gland that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol. In a smaller percentage of dogs there is a tumor on the adrenal gland that is producing the cortisol excessively even when no more is needed. Cushing’s usually affects older dogs, therefore often times the clinical signs can be confused with normal aging changes, as they can be slowly progressive. The typical signs that you might notice at home are ravenous appetite, increased thirst and urination to the point of having urinary accidents in the house, weight gain, pot belly appearance, thin skin, excessive panting, thinning hair and unhealthy skin.

If your pet’s veterinarian suspects Cushing’s disease, he or she might recommend a complete blood count, chemistry and urine analysis to evaluate the overall health of your pet. Additional tests to look specifically for Cushing’s may also be recommended. Obtaining a diagnosis is not always easy and in some cases, an abdominal ultrasound can be a helpful tool in diagnosis.

If your pet is found to have Cushing’s disease, therapy would likely include lifelong medications, as Cushing’s is not curable but in most cases can be medically managed. Be sure to discuss potential side effects from the medications with your veterinarian. Well managed patients with Cushing’s disease can live a normal life for years, however, close monitoring and frequent veterinary visits are needed.

Dr. Ahmira Torres is a board-certified internal medicine specialist at MissionVet. She was born and raised in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico and speaks fluent Spanish. Dr. Torres joined MissionVet after working at a four doctor specialty clinic focused only on internal medicine in Northern Virginia where she honed her skills in ultrasound imaging, endoscopies and laparoscopies. Her special interests include autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases.