Visible and Invisible Disabilities  -A look at Cushings Disease        

Part 3 of the Daxington Post series                             by Danielle Kirkman

Cushing’s disease (Cushings Syndrome) has been described by holistic veterinarian and expert, Dr. Karen Becker, as “the incurable disease your vet is likely to miss.”  Cushing’s disease is an invisible illness that is both complex and confusing.  In Part 3 of the Daxington Post’s series on Canine Visible and Invisible Disabilities, we’ll take a look at the difficult disease (including symptoms and treatment options) and meet a gutsy and spirited dachshund named Peanut who has had Cushings disease for more than four years.


Let’s start with the basics.  The technical name for Cushing’s disease or syndrome is


– this term refers to the overproduction/release of the hormone cortisol by the adrenal glands.  The disease was first diagnosed in 1932 (in humans) by Dr. Harvey Cushing.  In the canine world, Cushing’s disease is most common in terriers, poodles, boxers, dachshunds and American Eskimo dogs.


According to the VCA hospital, “the adrenal glands are located near the kidneys and produce several vital substances (including cortisol) that regulate a variety of body functions and are necessary to sustain life. Decreased or excessive production of these substances, especially cortisol, may be life-threatening.”  Cushing’s disease can result in a great deal of pain and discomfort for its victims. 


There are several forms of Cushing’s disease; the most common or typical form of the syndrome involves the excess production of cortisol and has two forms:


  1. Adrenal dependent typical Cushing’s (less common)
  2. Pituitary dependent typical Cushing’s (most common)

Eighty five – ninety percent of dogs with Cushing’s disease have the pituitary dependent form; in these cases, a tumor in the pituitary gland (at the base of the brain) releases a hormone that stimulates the adrenal gland to overproduce cortisol.  The tumor may be benign or malignant and can range in size from microscopic to a one cm or larger.  An estimated fifteen percent of dogs with Cushing’s have the adrenal dependent form; usually a tumor in the adrenal gland boosts cortisol secretion.

In addition, dogs may also get a form of Cushing’s disease called “iatrogenic Cushing’s.” This is caused by excessive administration of oral or injectable glucocorticoids, a type of steroid used for treating medical concerns such as allergies.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, it is also important to be aware “Atypical Cushing’s disease.”  Like the typical Cushing’s disease, there is an adrenal gland tumor.  In the atypical form of the disease, the tumor does NOT lead to overproduction of cortisol.  A dog may exhibit symptoms of the disease, but treatment may be less straightforward.

There are several in-depth resources available on the web to help demystify the disease.  Dr. Karen Becker offers a three part video series to help pet owners to understand the mechanism of Cushing's disease in pets, the various forms it can take, symptoms to watch for, and how to get a definitive diagnosis.  Here are the links to these excellent resources:

Three part video series by Dr. Karen Becker: 

Cushing's Disease Part 1 with Dr. Karen Becker 

Cushing's Disease Part 2 with Dr. Karen Becker 

Cushing's Disease Part 3 with Dr. Karen Becker

(Note – please visit the resources below for additional information and tips.)

I’d like to share some information about a lovable little dachshund named Peanut.  Peanut, now 13, was diagnosed more than four years ago with the most common form of Cushing’s disease.  He has a tumor in the pituitary gland.  Peanut’s Mom, Nejolla,  was asked to describe the condition: “It impacts the quality of life a lot. Cushings causes the adrenal glands to over produce cortisol so some symptoms are excessive thirst and panting, voracious appetite, hair loss and thinning of the skin. Peanut’s vet described it as ‘imagine if your dog was in fight or flight mode all the time’ or ‘running 24 hours a day.’"  She went on to explain: “Cushing’s is also a dynamic disease. There is no cure for it. So it is important to do blood work a few times a year. Cold weather and warm weather can also affect it.”

Nejolla, like other pet owners with Cushing’s dogs not only has to monitor Peanut’s physical symptoms and other behaviors, but also has to consider the best course of treatment for his disease.  There are a few conventional therapies available but may have side effects.  Other veterinarians recommend a holistic approach.  This is a decision that needs to be made in partnership with the veterinarian and will depend on the type and severity of the condition. (Note, please see the attached references for additional information on treatment options)


Peanut and his Mom have opted for a holistic approach to manage Peanut’s Cushing’s disease. Nejolla commented: “We are so lucky to be working with Dr. Steve Marsden (who is an international authority on Chinese herbs for the veterinary profession). He put Peanut on a course of herbs to try for six months and then we would retest. After six months, the liver enzyme readings came down by several hundred. Normal is around 300 and initially, Peanut had readings near 2000.  During the first six months, Peanut’s values improved to 1500.”   The resources provided below contain useful information about both types of treatments (Conventional and Holistic).

One piece of advice that Peanut’s Mom shared is that it is essential “to be aware of his changing symptoms. Pets communicate the way they feel in very different ways.”  If you notice anything out of the ordinary, consult with your vet immediately.  “Cushing’s is a disease that fluctuates, so testing is important every six months. Certain readings can be influenced by the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

On a personal note, Peanut’s Mom described Peanut as a real gem and chuckled that  “Peanut will put any costume on to get that liver treat!!”  He has an amazing ability to sense sincerity and compassion – his intuitive skills have helped Peanut be a great protector for his “Grannie.”  Peanut looks pretty happy sitting with his Grannie !!

Danielle Kirkman

USA Georgia Editor

5th April2018

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