When to Put a Dog Down with Cushing’s Disease?

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If your dog has been diagnosed with an illness like Cushing’s disease, you will want to limit the pain and suffering that comes with it. The time inevitably comes when you have to make the humane decision to put your beloved pet down. 

It is essential to know how to recognize the signs of Cushing’s disease, how advanced the symptoms may be, and if your dog is in pain. If your dog has CD, monitoring your pet’s declining health and quality of life are essential steps when facing the prospect of putting your dog down. 

What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease (CD), or hyperadrenocorticism, is most often caused by a small tumor that is difficult to diagnose. Cushing’s syndrome occurs naturally, typically in older dogs. It most often affects the pituitary glands and occasionally the adrenal glands.

Pituitary

Approximately 85-90 percent of Cushing’s disease attributes to a tumor on the pituitary, a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain. The pituitary produces different hormones, including cortisol. 

A tumor on the pituitary causes an excess amount of cortisol to be released into the bloodstream, creating several symptoms detrimental to your dog’s health. 

Adrenal

Less than 20 percent of cases of Cushing’s disease in dogs come from a tumor in one or both adrenal glands. These two peanut-sized glands in front of the kidneys can also produce excess cortisol leading to your dog’s declining quality of life. 

Does My Dog Have Cushing’s Disease?

It is usually obvious when your dog is not feeling itself. Vomiting and diarrhea are common symptoms that can signal several illnesses. These signs may also be associated with Cushing’s disease in dogs. 

Symptoms of a Dog Dying from Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease is challenging to diagnose because some symptoms of CD are often mistaken as natural signs of aging. CD develops over a long period of time, making it difficult for pet owners to recognize the symptoms of a dog dying from Cushing’s.

Signs that your dog may have Cushing’s disease include: 

Excessive Urination

Cushing’s disease causes dehydration, so you will notice your dog may show signs of being overly thirsty. Drinking excessive amounts of water will cause your dog to urinate frequently, a change in behavior that should be recognized as a possible sign of CD. 

Hair Loss

Most pet owners are all too familiar with pet hair on the carpets and furniture. However, if hair loss is excessive, it could be a symptom of CD.

Muscle Weakness

Cushing’s disease causes muscle loss resulting in muscle weakness. Your dog may be in an advanced stage of Cushing’s syndrome. If your dog shows signs of difficulty getting up, standing, or walking, then seek the help of your veterinarian. 

Obesity

You may notice your dog developing a “potbelly.” It makes weight gain difficult to recognize as a symptom of CD. Since dogs slow down as they get older and do not get as much exercise, it is not unusual for them to put on extra weight. 

Skin Lesions

Thinning skin or skin lesions are another sign Cushing’s disease may be affecting your dog. If your dog licks or scratches itself more than usual, inspect your pet for abnormalities beneath its coat. There are medications to help relieve the discomfort.

Reduced Activity

Changes in your dog’s behavior are sometimes concerning and worth monitoring. Having gained weight or feeling weak might limit your dog’s desire to go for a walk or play fetch.  

What Causes Cushing’s Disease? 

Cushing’s disease is a syndrome that can develop naturally, especially in dogs over eight years old. Certain smaller breeds seem to be more susceptible to developing CD, such as the Dachshund, Miniature Poodle, Beagle, Boxer, Boston Terrier, and Yorkshire Terrier. 

Another cause of Cushing’s disease in dogs is the prolonged use of steroids. The application of steroid-containing products can be absorbed through the skin and cause the same problems as CD caused by tumors.

What are the Stages of Cushing’s Syndrome in Dogs?

Cushing’s disease is a terminal illness that develops slowly. Often the stages of Cushing’s syndrome in dogs are difficult to recognize because they are similar to the signs of aging. Most dogs are middle-aged when most at risk of developing CD.

One of the first stages of CD is dehydration. A dramatic increase in drinking water and urination could be a sign that your dog is in an early stage of Cushing’s syndrome. This can lead to more severe stages of CD, including kidney failure and muscle loss.

Is Cushing’s Disease Deadly for Dogs?

Cushing’s disease is a condition that can seriously impact your dog’s health, reduce the quality of life, and leave you facing the prospect of having to put your dog down. 

Two of the most severe conditions caused by Cushing’s disease are:

Kidney Failure

When your dog experiences kidney failure, the organ will no longer be able to produce red blood cells and remove harmful toxins. This can cause a rapid deterioration in your dog’s health. 

Diabetes

Diabetes in dogs happens when excessive sugar builds up in a dog’s bloodstream, yet the muscle cells and organ cells that need the sugar cannot access it to convert it into energy. This can result in damaged organs, including the kidneys, heart, eyes, and blood vessels. 

How is Cushing’s Disease Diagnosed in Dogs?

Your veterinarian will take blood and urine tests to diagnose whether your dog has Cushing’s disease. Another way to test is with a steroid injection that is intended to suppress adrenal production. 

If the dog’s cortisol level does not decrease, it could indicate that a tumor is present and not responding to the medication. 

Another method of diagnosis is with an ultrasound examination. This will enable a veterinarian to discover the presence of a tumor on the pituitary or adrenal glands. 

What Happens If Cushing’s Disease is Left Untreated in Dogs?

Since Cushing’s disease is often difficult to diagnose, your dog could have CD that is left untreated. Without timely treatment, your dog has a greater risk of high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, blindness, or myopathy, which affects muscle control. 

A dog with Cushing’s disease that has gone undiagnosed can also develop urinary infections and be at an increased risk of diabetes and pancreatitis.

How Long Does a Dog Live With Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing disease is often diagnosed in older dogs, so the number of years left in your pet is already likely to be waning. But with this terminal illness, the average survival time is approximately two to three years.

As your dog moves into the final stages of CD, the decision to end your pet’s pain and suffering becomes more apparent. There is no easy answer as to when. Gauge your dog’s symptoms with how much your pet still enjoys the little things in life.  

Can My Dog Be Treated for Cushing’s Disease?

Unfortunately, Cushing’s disease is not preventable. However, catching CD in its early stages can give your dog a more positive outlook. 

Depending on the location of the tumor, Cushing’s disease can be treated in one of three ways:

Medication

Cushing’s disease in dogs is most often a pituitary-based tumor where surgery is not an option. These tumors are only millimeters in size. Medication is the preferred treatment in order to block the gland from stimulating the adrenal cortex and releasing too much cortisol into the bloodstream.

The FDA has approved a drug to treat both pituitary and adrenal-dependent CD in dogs. Trilostane (under the name Vetoryl) is a prescription drug taken orally that works by stopping the adrenal glands from producing excessive cortisol. 

Frequent veterinary checkups and blood tests will be taken in the following months to monitor your dogs tolerance to the medication and response to the treatment.

Surgery

Surgery for Cushing’s disease in dogs is a complicated procedure. Luckily, only 10-15 percent of tumors are adrenal-based, so it is the less prescribed treatment option. However, if the tumor is benign or caught in its early stages, surgery can be curative. 

The unfortunate aspect of adrenal-based Cushing’s disease is that if the tumor is malignant it can spread through the body quickly. Surgery always carries a risk, so veterinarians prefer to treat CD with medication. 

Radiation

Radiation is a third option for treating Cushing’s disease. This treatment is used only for pituitary-based tumors and only if diagnosed in the early stages.

If your dog takes well to the treatment prescribed by your veterinarian, there should be noticeable signs of improvement. 

Excessive drinking and urination should decrease rather quickly. If your pet had symptoms such as hair loss or skin lesions, you should see some recovery over the first couple of months.

When is it Time to Euthanize a Dog with Cushing’s Disease?

There is no definitive time to make the difficult decision to euthanize a dog. You do not want to see your pet suffering in pain. If treatment has been exhausted without signs of improvement or stability, then euthanasia may be the only humane option that remains.

Is My Dog in Pain with Cushing’s Disease?

Your dog may have Cushing’s disease but displays no obvious signs of pain, like whimpering or whining. It is a disorder that slowly affects other organs which in turn can cause your dog a great deal of discomfort.

Once your dog reaches the final stages of CD, then more noticeable signs of pain will become obvious. 

What are the Final Stages of Cushing’s Disease?

When your dog is in the final stages of Cushing’s disease, its quality of life has diminished to the point where you will have to face the fact it may be time to have your dog put down. 

Chronic Pain

If your dog is in such pain that medication can no longer control it, your veterinarian may determine that your pet is in the latter stages of Cushing’s syndrome. 

Lethargy

Once your dog has lost interest in things it loves to do, like playing ball or going for a walk, getting petted or performing tricks for treats, this change in behavior is a painful signal that your pet’s quality of life is diminishing. 

Loss of Appetite

Most dogs love to eat. If your dog is no longer interested in food, this is an indicator that something is seriously wrong. 

When they do eat, if vomiting or chronic diarrhea is the result, you need to coordinate a visit with your veterinarian as soon as possible. You will notice your dog losing weight or showing signs of dehydration. 

Weakness

If your dog has Cushing’s and is falling down, or having difficulty walking or standing, this indicates an advanced stage of muscle weakness.

Difficulty Breathing

If your dog has difficulty breathing, is wheezing or coughing on a regular basis, this is an obvious sign that your pet is in the final stages and may be suffering. 

When to Put a Dog Down with Cushing’s Disease?

The love we have for our dogs makes this one of the most difficult decisions in a lifetime. Saying goodbye is never easy. But watching a beloved pet living with pain every day is not easy either.

Quality of life is the only measure when making a decision to euthanize a dog suffering from Cushing’s disease. Your veterinarian may be able to help you make the decision to euthanize your dog. 

Ultimately, the decision of when to do it is yours. If your dog’s symptoms outweigh its moments of comfort, then it is likely time to say goodbye. 

Your final show of love is to let your dog rest peacefully. 

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Sarah Alward | Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Sarah Alward | Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Our resident DVM helps review every article to ensure we always provide scientifically accurate, up-to-date information. She’s proud to help provide pet parents everywhere with the info they need to keep their pets safe, healthy, and comfortable.