Pet 411: Making Sense of Cushing’s Disease

I’ve said many times that being a veterinarian is like being a detective. Since our patients can’t tell us what’s wrong, we have to search for clues and gather evidence to make a diagnosis.ST Meeks Blog Logo Image 2016 01 28

One of the conditions that really tests our sleuthing skills is Cushing’s disease. It typically strikes middle age to older dogs, and has a variety of symptoms that can mimic other diseases. I’ve been thinking about Cushing’s since receiving an email from a reader seeking information on the disease. She thinks Cushing’s may have been the underlying cause of death for her Yorkie, who recently passed away.

What is Cushing’s? Also known as hyperadrenocorticism, it’s a common condition in dogs caused by having excess steroids in the body. Most frequently, this is due to a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. In about 15 percent of cases, it’s caused by a tumor in one of the glands that sit above the kidneys, called the adrenal glands.

The most common signs are excessive urination, excessive drinking, increased appetite, hair loss, muscle weakness, a “potbellied” appearance, panting, thin skin and lethargy. Sounds like traits that many older dogs display, right? Some of these symptoms, such as drinking and urinating excessively, mimic other diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease, urinary tract infections, etc.

While there’s no method that’s 100 percent accurate to diagnose Cushing’s, the veterinarian’s best tool is blood tests. In some cases, we’ll also want to do an ultrasound scan of the abdomen to help rule out other potential ailments and make sure there is not a tumor on the adrenal gland.

If your dog is diagnosed with Cushing’s, your veterinarian can prescribe medication that will control the condition. The medication must be continued throughout your dog’s life, although the dose may need to be adjusted from time to time. Close monitoring will also be necessary, especially during the initial stages of treatment

The bottom line: The long-term prognosis for dogs with Cushing’s is good, as long as there is sufficient follow-up and periodic monitoring of the adrenal function. If you have additional questions, I recommend talking to your family veterinarian and reading the information on Cushing’s on

On a lighter note, I sometimes receive notes from readers that make me smile. This one made me laugh out loud, so I thought I would share:

Dear Dr. Meeks:

My 14-year-old cat Murray has taken to drinking out of my goldfish’s bowl. While Chucky is not pleased with this development, Murray apparently enjoys the je ne sais quoi of fish-excrement laden water. I also treat the water with Betta Basics, which is designed to provide an optimal environment for bettas and plants. It removes chlorine, chloramine and ammonia. Will this remove Murray as well?

While the treated water may not “remove” Murray, he should be drinking fresh, clean water. So I recommend moving the fish bowl someplace where Murray can’t reach it – both for his sake and for poor Chucky’s.

Happy holidays to everyone, and I look forward to answering more of your questions in 2017!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.