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Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

By Dr. Kait Link, DVM and medically reviewed by Sarah Wallace DVM
July 1, 2016 • 3 min. read

Just like humans, dogs’ hormones can sometimes get out of balance. One example of hormonal imbalance that usually affects middle-aged and older dogs is Cushing’s disease, also called hyperadrenocorticism, which means excessive cortisol production caused by an abnormality in either the adrenal gland or pituitary gland.

What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease is a condition in which your dog’s body makes too much of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally produced in times of stress; it is also known as the fight or flight hormone. The breakdown of body fats and sugars to prepare for stress is a good response in short bursts, but prolonged exposure to the cortisol hormone creates a long-term breakdown process in the body. As a result, it can ultimately weaken the immune system and leave your pup vulnerable to additional infections and diseases.

There are two main types of this condition that affect dogs:

  • Pituitary dependent: This type is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland in the brain and is the most common type of Cushing’s disease. The pituitary gland is what tells the adrenal glands to produce and secrete cortisol. 85% of Cushing’s disease cases are caused by pituitary tumors.
  • Adrenal dependent: Caused by a tumor in the adrenal glands, near the kidneys. 15% of Cushing’s disease cases are caused by adrenal tumors.

Clinical Signs and Symptoms

Because there are many non-specific clinical signs that result from chronic exposure to cortisol, Cushing’s disease can be quite difficult to diagnose. Some signs to look out for:

  • increased thirst, appetite, and/or urination
  • saggy belly
  • lethargy and weakness
  • hair loss, darkening of the skin or recurrent skin infections
  • poor wound healing
  • excessive panting

Diagnosing Cushing’s Disease

Because Cushing’s has similar symptoms to a few other conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose. Several blood tests are necessary to identify the disease and determine whether the adrenal or the pituitary gland is the source of all the trouble.

Some diagnostic testing may include:

  • ACTH stimulation test
  • Low dose dexamethasone suppression test
  • High dose dexamethasone suppression test
  • Endogenous ACTH level
  • Ultrasound of the belly to check for adrenal tumor

In addition to these tests, X-rays and MRI can also be useful in making a diagnosis.


Just like the symptoms and diagnosis, the treatment of Cushing’s disease is varied and complex. If the condition is due to a tumor on one of the adrenal glands, then surgery can be an option if the tumor is benign. However, it is possible that the adrenal tumor is malignant and may have spread elsewhere in the body.

In other cases where surgery for an adrenal tumor is not recommended, or in cases of pituitary tumors, prescription medications may be necessary for the rest of the dog’s life. Without treatment, symptoms may persist indefinitely and infections of the skin and urine may reoccur indefinitely. Although not a fatal disease, treatment is generally encouraged to improve the quality of life for your dog. It’s best to come up with a plan alongside your veterinarian, since treatment is unique to every pup.


The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

Dr. Kait Link, DVM, is a veterinarian and co-founder of Treat, an innovative vet practice. Treat is reinventing pet care, offering instant access to affordable in-home veterinary care, training, and grooming. Book in under a minute or chat free anytime. 

kait link
By Dr. Kait Link, DVM

Dr. Kait Link, DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), is a veterinarian and co-founder of Treat, an innovative vet practice in operation from 2015-2016. She served as the Chair of External Affairs Committee for International Veterinary Outreach from 2018-2020. Dr. Link works as a clinical research veterinarian in San Francisco, Calif. She graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 2014.

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Sarah Wallace DVM profile photo
By Sarah Wallace DVM

Dr. Sarah Wallace is the vice president of telehealth at Galaxy Vets, based in Fort Collins, Colo. She is actively working to increase access to veterinary care, to develop more effective communication strategies to bridge the gap between veterinarian knowledge and pet parent understanding and build happy and sustainable veterinary teams. Dr. Wallace studied biology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and attended veterinary school at Western University of Health Sciences in California. After graduation, Dr. Wallace started working with Just Food for Dogs, an innovative pet food startup out of southern California advocating fresh, whole-food diets for dogs. She also completed a small animal rotating internship at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists - receiving one-on-one training with San Francisco's top veterinarians in internal medicine, neurology, dermatology, oncology and surgery. After working in clinical practice, Dr. Wallace joined the field of telehealth. Dr. Wallace writes and reviews blog content for Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. Dr. Sarah Wallace on LinkedIn Cardinal Veterinary Works Consulting

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