The Dog Owner's Guide To Cushing's Disease

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Even though no cure exists for Cushing’s, this disease is manageable. Daily choices, such as dietary changes and supplements, improve your dog's quality of life. Learn what to expect as the disease progresses and how to keep your fur baby comfortable.

Spot's  Story: Cushing's Disease, The Dreaded Dilemma

Spot lumbered into the exam room. He walked somewhat bowlegged lugging a distended belly. Spot appeared to have swallowed a basketball, the ball still full of air hanging in his gut.

“So, what brings you to the veterinarian today?” inquired Dr. Marc Smith, practicing veterinarian and PET | TAO co-founder.

“Well, Spot’s not acting like himself. He’s shaking, agitated, and gobbling up everything in sight.”

“He also pees and drinks all the time.”

“Plus, his hair is falling out and his skin looks yucky and smells nasty.” Spot’s owners are distressed.

Spot has been a family pet for 12 years and is still a beloved family member. His death would dishearten the family. Dr. Smith examined Spot and decided Spot may be suffering from Cushing’s disease.

Cushing's disease is a disorder in which the adrenal gland produces too much cortisol. Another name for Cushing’s disease is hyperadrenocorticism.

The adrenal glands are two triangular shaped glands located next to the kidneys. The outer layer, called the cortex, produces three hormones:

  • Cortisol - regulates metabolic activity and the immune system
  • Aldosterone - blood pressure and water metabolism
  • Sex hormones - estrogen and progesterone

The inner layer, called the medulla, produces two hormones:

  • Epinephrine
  • Norepinephrine

Two forms of Cushing’s exist in dogs. The first form is Typical Cushing’s disease. In Typical Cushing's, the adrenal cortex produces too much cortisol. The result is irregular metabolic and immune system activity.

The most common cause of Typical Cushing's is the pituitary gland overproducing ACTH. We call Cushing’s disease originating from the pituitary gland "pituitary-dependent Cushing’s." As many as 80% of dogs diagnosed with Cushing’s are pituitary-dependent.

In the other 20%, tumors on the adrenal glands are the cause of Cushing’s disease. We call Cushing's disease caused by adrenal tumors "adrenal-dependent Cushing’s."

Researchers recently discovered a new form of Cushing’s called Atypical Cushing’s. Atypical Cushing's occurs when the adrenal cortex produces an excess of steroid hormones. The resulting signs are similar to signs of Typical Cushing’s.

Both Typical and Atypical Cushing’s affect middle-aged to older dogs of all breeds. Cushing's disease affects males and females equally.

Dr. Smith told Spot’s owners “It seems to me Spot may have Cushing’s disease. Blood tests should confirm my suspicions. If test results confirm Cushing's, we will discuss treatment options, prognosis, and life expectancy.”

Spot’s owners, a young couple, feel dejected and upset. On the positive side, hope exists for dogs with Cushing’s.

With a proper diagnosis and treatment, Spot can live a very productive, pain-free life well into his golden years.

From a diagnostic perspective, veterinarians may perform several tests including:

  • Urine cortisol/creatinine ratio screening test
  • Low dose dexamethasone screening test
  • High dose dexamethasone differentiation test
  • ACTH stimulation differentiation test
  • Abdominal ultrasound to identify adrenal tumor or adrenal enlargement

The above tests help veterinarians diagnose and categorize Cushing’s disease.

In addition, the tests provide valuable information about the type of Cushing’s and the best treatment to start with.

Treatment may involve diet, a natural treatment, pharmaceutical drugs, or a combination.

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4 Natural Treatments for Dog Cushing’s Disease

For any medical condition, we like the idea of natural treatments.

They do no harm! They cost less! And, they generally require less effort.

However, the big question is, “Do they work?”

Natural solutions help many dogs suffering from Cushing's disease feel much better. The following natural treatments can benefit dogs with Cushing’s:

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is a European medicinal plant containing silymarin, a flavonoid complex. Veterinarians often use milk thistle to normalize liver enzymes. Milk thistle also aids the flow of bile throughout the liver and regenerates liver cells.

Dogs with Cushing’s disease often have elevated liver enzymes, indicating Cushing's impact on the liver. Increased circulating cortisol causes steroid liver disease, exacerbating Cushing's clinical signs. You can buy milk thistle at any local drug store.

Fish Oil

Fish oil helps most diseases. Fish oil is helpful in Cushing’s because of its direct effects on the skin and lipids in the bloodstream.

Cushing’s disease, with its increased cortisol level, decreases immunity. Decreased immunity causes many Cushing's dogs to suffer from hot spots and inflamed skin. Fish oil is the perfect natural remedy to quiet inflamed skin.

Hyperlipidemia is the condition of excess lipids in the bloodstream. Fish oil helps lower the bad fats circulating in the bloodstream. You can get Fish oil capsules over-the-counter at most drug stores

Read the label carefully and make sure you get a combination of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).


Vinegar treats external skin symptoms associated with Cushing's disease. Vinegar is antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and restores the skin's natural pH balance. It is an effective treatment for the skin infections caused by Cushing's disease.

Simply mix in equal amounts vinegar and water, and spray or dab onto affected areas 2-3 times daily. If your dog is white, you should use white distilled vinegar. Apple cider vinegar may stain white and light colored dogs.

Melatonin and Lignans

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland. It helps regulate hormones and the body’s circadian rhythm. Melatonin is also a natural treatment for hair loss in dogs, cats, and ferrets.

Plant lignans, when ingested, convert to other lignans in the body and act as a phytoestrogen. When used together, melatonin and lignans relieve many symptoms associated with Cushing’s disease in dogs.

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Life Expectancy: How Long Will My Dog Live with Cushing’s?

We all want our dogs to live forever. The life expectancy of dogs with Cushing’s disease varies depending on a variety of factors.

First, when in the disease process is the disease diagnosed? Diagnosing Cushing’s with certainty is difficult.

But, results are often much more rewarding concerning prognosis and quality of life when diagnosed early. Since the course of the disease is progressive, the importance of being aware of the signs and symptoms of Cushing’s is important.

Signs of Cushing’s in Dogs:

  • Excessive drinking and urination
  • Hair loss
  • Agitation and panting
  • Chronic skin infection
  • Skin thickening
  • Chronic urinary tract infections
  • Distended abdomen
  • Increased appetite
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Lethargy and weight gain

Owners report seeing signs of Cushing’s for 6 months to as long as 6 years before seeking veterinary attention. Changes are quite gradual in onset. Often, signs of Cushing's are mistaken for signs of simple aging. Many dogs are not diagnosed until the advanced stages. It's not until the signs are intolerable or symptoms severe that owners seek veterinary help.

If lab tests confirm Cushing’s, how will you treat your dog?

Some owners prefer diligent treatment with pharmaceuticals. Other owners prefer herbals and natural remedies, and some even prefer no treatment. It all depends on your pet’s individual situation. But, your choice of treatment may ultimately determine your dog’s life expectancy.

So, to answer your main question on how long your dog will live with Cushing’s, the response depends on:

  • When was Cushing's diagnosed?
  • What is your chosen treatment?

Obviously, the earlier the Cushing’s diagnosis, the better.Choosing how to treat a dog with Cushing’s is a huge decision you should not take lightly. Treating Cushing’s with pharmaceutical drugs requires a huge investment of both time and money.

Frequently, owners will spend thousands of dollars trying to help their best friend. Also, veterinary visits may be weekly in the initial treatment stages.

Treatment is often frustrating. And, the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs can be disheartening, to say the least. Knowing the realities, many owners choose the herbal route. Eastern herbal medicine benefits many dogs with Cushing's without the worry of side effects and expense.

Dr. Smith, co-founder of PET | TAO Holistic Pet Products, often recommends Eastern herbals.

"In my practice," states Dr. Smith, "most clients choose herbal remedies to reduce side effects and lower cost."

And, some owners prefer no treatment. Don't chastise owners who prefer to leave their dogs untreated, though. Sometimes, untreated dogs live longer than their treated counterparts.


Most likely, the reason lies in that individual dog’s genetic resiliency. Some experts say dogs will live 2 years and some reports cite 6 years. In fact, trying to predict life expectancy in dogs with Cushing’s is a true guess. Everyone’s got an opinion!

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Action Items

Complete the following action items, and you'll be well on your way down the path to better health for your pet!

  1. Learn more about Dog Cushing's disease by downloading our free ebook: "Solutions for Dogs with Cushing's Disease: How to Make Your Best Friend Feel Better."
  2. Try a natural treatment like Melatonin and Lignans.
  3. Try a milk thistle supplement to support your dog's liver.
  4. Try one of our slow cooker recipes for dogs with Cushing's disease.
  5. Always consult with your veterinarian before making changes to your dog's diet and exercise routine.

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