In dogs, hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease occurs due to an overabundance of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol comes from the adrenal glands, which are found above the kidneys in mammals.

Both dogs and humans are susceptible to Cushing’s disease. Middle-aged and older dogs are more likely to develop the disease, with risk categories beginning around the age of six. According to Washington State, an estimated 100,000 dogs are diagnosed with Cushing’s disease in the United States every year.

Summary

  • Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone related to the management of stress inside the body.

  • Cushing’s disease occurs when cortisol levels increase, due to the presence of a tumor or other disruption to the adrenal or pituitary glands.

  • CBD is unlikely to cure Cushing’s disease, but it should help with many of the resulting symptoms, as well as reducing levels of cortisol and overall hormone imbalances in a dog’s body.

  • While CBD is a good option for pet owners looking to supplement their dog’s treatment plan, it shouldn’t replace any existing treatment without extensive prior consultation with a veterinarian.

Cortisol: An explainer

The mainstream understanding of cortisol is related to the concept of stress—which is partly true. In a healthy body, cortisol is released when waking up, exercising, or going through some form of exertion. It also plays a role in signaling the fight or flight response.

But the true role of cortisol in the body is much wider. According to the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, cortisol can be thought of as a natural steroid, not only helping the body adapt to stress but also regulating body weight, tissues, skin health, and a host of other features of related to proper functioning, such as the metabolism and blood pressure.

Too much cortisol in the body and the immune system is likely to become stressed, which in turn makes animals and humans more susceptible to outside infections. When the adrenal glands consistently overproduce cortisol, the body can also begin to experience other forms of disruption, which will continue to worsen until cortisol levels are reduced.

What does Cushing’s disease look like in dogs?

Most of the time, Cushing’s has a slow onset, meaning that owners may not know exactly when symptoms begin to emerge in their dog. According to VCA Hospitals, by the time that symptoms are noticeable, they usually include:

  • Thirst to the point of franticness

  • Increased urination (often as a result of overhydration)

  • Large increases or decreases in appetite (stress eating)

  • Lethargy, listlessness, and reduced activity

  • Panting without a clear reason

  • Thinner skin, noticeable upon picking a dog up

  • Hair loss, primarily on the body rather than legs

  • An enlarged abdomen that results in a ‘potbelly’ appearance

How is it treated by veterinarians?

Treatment for Cushing’s will depend partly on the source behind your dog’s increased cortisol levels.

Pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease results from disruption to the pituitary gland at the base of the brain—often due to a tumor, trauma, or separate disease. When disrupted, the pituitary gland can overproduce something called the adrenocorticotropic hormone, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol. The FDA estimates that up to 85 percent of dogs with Cushing’s have this sort of pituitary-dependent form.

Adrenal-dependent Cushing’s disease results from disruption to the adrenal glands themselves—again, usually due to a tumor. This causes the glands to become confused and overproduce cortisol, which builds in the bloodstream.

Completely curing Cushing’s disease requires removing the tumor or other disruption to the affected gland before the tumor spreads. In adrenal-dependent cases, this may be possible through surgery, however, surgical techniques for the pituitary-dependent disease are not viable options for dogs in the majority of situations.

Most of the time, dogs with Cushing’s will be treated via a lifelong management plan, consisting of courses of medication that are designed to inhibit cortisol production, as well as frequent checkups from their veterinarian. Handled correctly, this treatment can ensure a relatively high quality of life for dogs living with the disease.

Where does CBD come into the picture?

There’s some indication that CBD may directly affect the size and growth of tumors, which could be good news for dogs with Cushing’s as a result of cancerous growths. However, the real value of CBD products for dogs overproducing cortisol is threefold:

  • CBD oil may be able to counteract the side effects of drugs commonly prescribed to dogs for Cushing’s. These include reduced appetite, vomiting, and lack of energy.

  • Second, CBD oil may be able to counteract the effects of increased cortisol levels. Working through the endocannabinoid system, CBD is able to affect receptors in the brain, nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract, reducing inflammation and irritation.

  • And finally, some research suggests that CBD oil may be able to help reduce hormonal imbalances and lower cortisol levels in the body. Cannabinoid receptors, which are affected by CBD, are expressed throughout the body, including the pituitary gland, and are able to influence the stress response.

And does it work?

The only true way to find out if CBD will have a beneficial effect on your dog is to try it out—starting with small daily dosages and moving from there. For some dogs, CBD may not prove effective, but the chances of your pup having a negative reaction are small to non-existent.

Until clinical evidence catches up with mainstream use, we won’t know for sure whether CBD is a viable treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs. But, given substantial proof of CBD’s ability to work on cortisol levels through the endocrine and endocannabinoid systems, there’s definitely a good reason to be optimistic.