Hyperadrenocorticism in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments and Prevention


Behind this barbaric name hides Cushing’s disease. Hyperadrenocorticism is caused by the excessive production of cortisol to which the organism is then chronically exposed. Cortisol is one of the corticotropic hormones. It is produced by the pituitary gland, then synthesized and finally distilled into the blood by the adrenal glands from cholesterol. The cortisol is useful because it balances the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins and, in addition, it helps the body to protect itself against this type of emotional state which is stress. It is also commonly called the stress hormone. But in too large a quantity, it damages the organs, the muscles, and its harmful consequences on the metabolism are important. Let’s take a look at hyperadrenocorticism in dogs.

Hyperadrenocorticism: is it Cushing’s syndrome or Cushing’s disease?

It is not necessary not confuse Cushing’s syndrome and Cushing’s disease. However, there is a great misconception in this area because the difference between the two is extremely subtle. This syndrome can therefore develop following:

  • A exogenous problem as is the case with treatment with synthetic corticosteroids,
  • A endogenous circumstance which can be for example the excessive production of cortisol by the adrenal glands which are located just above the kidneys. In this case, the cause is pathological. This is the case with hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease.

So, to keep it simple, let’s just remember that the Cushing’s disease is one of the causes of Cushing’s syndrome.

Hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease: possible causes

In almost 9 out of 10 cases, Cushing’s disease (or hyperadrenocorticism) is caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland, the gland located in the sella turcica and which is also called the pituitary gland. Sometimes hyperadrenocorticism can also originate from a tumor in one of the adrenal glands. In either case, this usually leads to an increase in the production of cortisol and its release into the blood. Finally, as we said previously, it is a corticosteroid-based treatment that can cause this type of health problem in dogs.

Cushing’s disease or hyperadrenocorticism in dogs: symptoms

It is not easy to quickly identify certain manifestations of hyperadrenocorticism. However, it causes symptoms which, over time, no longer go unnoticed, the main ones being:

  • The skin which becomes thinner,
  • Muscle wasting,
  • Hair loss,
  • Weight gain which can lead to obesity in dogs,
  • A lethargic state,
  • The premature aging of the animal,
  • A deterioration in the state of health.

In the absence of prompt management, the dog is severely exposed to different health problems because hyperadrenocorticism is a factor favoring certain pathologies For example :

  • Inflammation of the pancreas
  • Kidney infection
  • Diabetes,
  • Pulmonary embolism.

It is essential to consult the veterinarian urgently as soon as you notice the slightest change in the appearance of your dog, no matter how small.

Canine hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease: treatments

Before prescribing treatment, the veterinarian should confirm his diagnostic if he suspects Cushing’s disease. It must also in identify the cause through tests and examinations complementary to the clinical examination. This requires, among other things, a blood test, an imaging test such as ultrasound, a scanner, as well as various tests (dexamethasone braking, ACTH stimulation, etc.).

As soon as the origin of hyperadrenocorticism is known, the veterinarian endocrinologist sets up an adapted treatment protocol. Of course, if the disease is due to synthetic corticosteroids, simply stopping the treatment is enough to restore normal cortisol levels and everything is back to normal.

If the cause is not drug, the prescription of treatment is needed. It is therefore established case by case, and can for example be based on one or the other of the following molecules: mitotane and trilostane, knowing that the former causes quite numerous undesirable effects because it is particularly powerful.

If the investigations made it possible to detect a tumor – whether pituitary or adrenal -, the practitioner may deem it essential to have recourse to a surgical intervention. This obviously involves operating the dog under general anesthesia.

However, the owner of the animal should be aware that hyperadrenocorticism is a serious problem and that not all dogs survive this pathology. In many cases, the animal’s life expectancy is reduced despite surgical management.

Can hyperadrenocorticism be prevented in dogs?

The prevention of hyperadrenocorticism could involve avoiding treatment with corticosteroids, but if the animal needs it it would be a shame if it did not benefit from it. In this case, knowing the risks, the master must to stay attentive to his little companion in order to consult the veterinarian in the slightest doubt. If necessary, the treatment is then interrupted. But this decision should only be made by the practitioner. Under no circumstances can the teacher terminate the treatment on his own. If an animal health expert prescribed it, it was because he conscientiously considered that it was essential for his little four-legged patient.

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