Cushing’s Syndrome in Dogs – Symptoms and Treatment

Cushing’s Syndrome can occur in any breed of dog, occurs equally in male or female and is usually diagnosed around the age of 7 – 10 years.

It is most often caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland, which in turn leads to over-secretion of cortisol by the adrenal gland. 

The pituitary gland is located near the base of the brain and it controls most of the body systems by secreting hormones.

Cushing’s Syndrome is caused when the adrenal glands produce too much of the hormone called cortisol.  This overproduction can occur when the adrenal glands themselves are not functioning properly or when the pituitary gland overproduces the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn over stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the cortisol.

A tumour in the pituitary gland can cause the gland to send out too much ACTH signals to the adrenal glands that in turn produce more cortisol than the body needs. The adrenal gland malfunctioning type of Cushing’s Syndrome only occurs in about 20% of diagnosed cases with the pituitary overproduction of ACTH making up the rest of the 80%.  The disease can also be caused by cortisone medications given over a long period of time.

Regardless of the cause, the general symptoms will be the same.

Prolonged and abnormally high levels of cortisol secretion causes a wide range of detrimental health effects in dogs, such as high blood sugar and the suppression of the immune system.

The resulting loss of condition, lethargy and ‘interest in life’ caused by the disease is often wrongly attributed to the dog’s ageing process, meaning that many dogs will go undiagnosed.  The good news is that with a correct diagnosis and treatment, your dog can go on to live many more years of a happy and comfortable life.

Treatments include drugs and alternative methods such as Photonic Therapy which is a non-invasive treatment regime which has shown to be successful in treating dogs with a variety of conditions, including Cushing’s Syndrome (see treatment).

People, horses and other animals can suffer from the condition, but it is not contagious and no household is at risk from a dog with Cushing’s Syndrome.

Signs of Cushing’s Syndrome

The early signs of the condition include excessive drinking and frequent urination, often with the house trained dog becoming somewhat incontinent.  In addition the dog will be extremely hungry, seeming to be ready and willing to eat at any time of the day.  Generally, apart from food, the dog will become disinterested in everything else.

Later the dog will begin to become obese, but will take on a particular pot-bellied appearance rather than weight gain uniformly around the body.  The Syndrome causes elevation in liver enzymes and loss of muscle mass.  Part of the pot-bellied appearance is due to the swelling of the liver, which can lead to toxicity problems as the condition worsens.

The muscle breakdown will cause the legs to become very thin and spindly in appearance.

As the disease progresses the dog will begin to lose hair from the flanks and the body but it will stay long on the legs and the head. This is a symptom that will only occur once the disease has advanced significantly.

Basically your dog will look a lot older than its years.


Diagnosis includes observation for the signs of the disease and formal testing.   If your dog is showing the obvious signs of Cushing’s Syndrome, it is best to seek medical attention.  The vet will confirm the condition through a variety of blood tests designed to determine the cause of the Cushing’s Disease. The blood tests may also include test for diabetes, toxicity or other conditions that may be occurring at the same time.

Some dogs with diabetes may test positive for Cushing’s, although most dogs with both disorders develop Cushing’s disease before the onset of diabetes. About 10 percent of dogs with Cushing’s are also diabetic.

Treatment and Management of Cushing’s Syndrome

There is no conventional cure for  Cushing’s Syndrome.  Depending on the cause of the condition the treatment will vary. If the symptoms are caused by a tumour in the adrenal gland it can be surgically removed, but the pituitary tumour is typically treated with drug therapies rather than surgery.

There are several medications that can successfully manage the condition and although they cannot restore full adrenal or pituitary function, they can help to manage the cortisol levels and ACTH levels in the blood.

Photonic therapy is an alternative or complementary means of treatment that has been known to have positive results in dogs with the condition.

Photonic therapy is the scientific application of light, to particular areas of the skin to produce particular physiological results such as pain relief, increased immune response and improved healing.     The therapy is non-invasive and is delivered by a ‘torch’ that emits a light. The therapy can be administered by you, with training, and it can be done in your own home.  By understanding the science of how acupuncture works through the autonomic nervous system as well as the spinal nerve transmission from skin stimulation, photonic therapy offers a whole new paradigm and hope of long term relief for Cushing’s Disease sufferers.  Read more about Photonic therapy and its application here.

If the dog also has diabetes or other chronic health conditions they may be treated at the same time as part of a holistic treatment plan.   It is best to discuss your dog’s diagnosis and treatment with your vet.  The vet can tell you all about the available drugs, their side effects and associated risks.

Combined with the treatment, management should include a low fat diet for those dogs that show enlarged livers due to the prolonged exposure to cortisol.  Lowering the fat content in the diet will help the liver to cope.

Proper treatment should see symptoms controlled and your dog return to normal behaviour and appearance.


When your dog has been your loyal companion for many years, it is distressing to see them lose condition and personality.  The important thing to know about the condition is that it is treatable and with proper treatment it is possible that your dog will live many more happy and useful years.

Nevertheless, taking care of a dog with Cushing’s Syndrome can be costly and time consuming and you may consider the use of alternative means of treatment such as photonic therapy which is non-invasive and may prove less costly in the long term.  The attraction of photonic therapy is that apart from the initial investment, it can be administered for free and in your own home.




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