Treating Cushing’s Disease in Dogs: Diets, Natural Remedies, and Medicines

Cushing’s disease is a condition that affects both humans and dogs, but it is surprisingly more common in canines, especially older ones. If left untreated, this disease can have serious consequences. In this article, we will explore how to recognize possible symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs, how veterinarians diagnose the condition, and various treatment options available, including conventional medicine, surgery, natural remedies, and diet.

What is Cushing’s Disease in Dogs?

Cushing’s disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism or hypercortisolism, is most commonly caused by a tumor that produces an excessive amount of the stress hormone cortisol. This tumor can develop either on the pituitary gland located at the base of the brain or on one of the adrenal glands near the kidneys. The overproduction of cortisol leads to a range of symptoms and health problems.

Types of Cushing’s Disease

There are four types of Cushing’s disease in dogs, with pituitary-dependent Cushing’s (PDC) and adrenal-dependent Cushing’s (ADC) being the most common:

  • PDC accounts for 80-90% of Cushing’s cases in dogs and is caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland.
  • ADC is responsible for 15-20% of cases and is caused by a cancerous or non-cancerous tumor on one of the adrenal glands.
  • Less common types include latrogenic Cushing’s syndrome, caused by excessive steroid treatment, and meal-induced Cushing’s, which is incredibly rare and occurs when a hormone released during meals triggers abnormal cortisol production.

Prevalence of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

Cushing’s disease is much more prevalent in dogs than in humans, with an estimated one to two out of every 1,000 dogs in the United States being diagnosed every year. This equates to approximately 100,000 dogs annually.

Cushing’s Disease vs. Cushing’s Syndrome

In humans, Cushing’s disease refers specifically to excess cortisol production caused by a pituitary gland tumor, while Cushing’s syndrome encompasses the symptoms and problems resulting from excess cortisol production regardless of the cause. However, in dogs, Cushing’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome are used interchangeably to describe the same condition.

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Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

The most common symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs, often referred to as “the five Ps,” include increased drinking (polydipsia), increased urination (polyuria), increased appetite (polyphagia), excessive panting, and a pot-bellied appearance. Other symptoms may include skin problems, hair loss, skin infections, muscle weakness, and various hormonal and metabolic issues.

Potential Misdiagnosis

Thyroid disease, or hypothyroidism, can often be misdiagnosed as Cushing’s disease in dogs. Symptoms of thyroid disease, such as hair loss, weight gain, lethargy, ear infections, and dry flaky skin, are similar to those of Cushing’s. It is essential to undergo proper diagnostic testing to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

Contributing Factors to Cushing’s Disease

Certain factors may contribute to the development of Cushing’s disease in dogs. Excessive steroid treatments prescribed by veterinarians, often used to combat skin allergies, can trigger the rare latrogenic Cushing’s syndrome. Additionally, some believe that a poor-quality commercial food diet, high in fats and low in proteins, may also contribute to the onset of Cushing’s disease.

Long-term Effects and Complications

Cushing’s disease can lead to various other health problems in dogs due to its impact on the body’s systems. These complications include diabetes, pancreatitis, heart disease, seizures, kidney disease, bladder stones, skin problems, and high blood pressure.

Dogs at Higher Risk

Although Cushing’s disease is more commonly diagnosed in older dogs, typically between 9 and 12 years of age, younger dogs can also develop the condition, especially in the rare meal-induced form. Certain dog breeds, such as Poodles, German Shepherds, Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Dachshunds, Boxers, and Beagles, may have a higher predisposition to Cushing’s disease.

Diagnosing Cushing’s Disease

Diagnosing Cushing’s disease in dogs can be challenging and often requires extensive testing for a definitive diagnosis. Veterinarians typically begin with blood and urine tests to identify possible indicators of the condition. Additional testing options include the ACTH stimulation test, low-dose and high-dose dexamethasone suppression tests, urine cortisol to creatinine ratio test, and ultrasound or x-ray imaging.

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Treating Cushing’s Disease

There are several treatment options available for Cushing’s disease in dogs. The choice of treatment depends on the type and severity of the disease. For mild pituitary-dependent Cushing’s, close monitoring may be sufficient. Some veterinarians recommend natural, anti-inflammatory diets and herbal therapy as a treatment approach. Conventional medical treatments include surgery, radiation, and medication.

Conventional Medical Treatments

Surgery is an option for removing malignant adrenal tumors causing Cushing’s disease, but it is rarely used for pituitary tumors. Radiation therapy can help shrink pituitary tumors and alleviate symptoms. Medication, such as trilostane (Vetoryl) and mitotane (Lysodren), is commonly prescribed to reduce cortisol production. These medications are effective in managing symptoms but do not cure the underlying disease.

Natural Remedies for Cushing’s Disease

Many veterinarians and dog owners have explored natural treatment options to help manage Cushing’s disease symptoms. These options include herbal and dietary supplements such as fish oil, dandelion, magnolia bark, melatonin, and more. Acupuncture is also considered a potential treatment to regulate the endocrine system and alleviate symptoms.

Dietary Considerations

Diet can play a crucial role in managing Cushing’s disease in dogs. Certain dietary changes can help reduce symptoms and improve overall well-being. A diet high in protein, low in fat and fiber, and low in carbohydrates and calcium is recommended. Foods rich in lignans, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, can also be beneficial.

Raw Diet for Dogs with Cushing’s

Many dog owners believe that feeding a raw diet can help with various health issues, including Cushing’s disease symptoms. While a raw diet may not specifically target Cushing’s symptoms, it can improve overall health by providing essential nutrients. However, caution should be exercised to ensure a nutritionally balanced diet and to prevent bacterial contamination.


Dogs treated for Cushing’s disease can have a high quality of life for several years beyond their diagnosis. The average survival time after diagnosis is approximately two years, with some dogs living beyond four years. However, it is important to note that most Cushing’s-diagnosed dogs are older and may ultimately succumb to other natural causes.

In conclusion, Cushing’s disease is a common condition in dogs that requires proper diagnosis and treatment to ensure the best possible outcome. With the guidance of a veterinarian, dog owners can explore various treatment options, including conventional medicine, natural remedies, and dietary changes, to effectively manage the disease and improve their furry friends’ quality of life.

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