By Lynn Molnar
Many of you perhaps remember, Hero the Golden, the sweet and sensitive golden retriever that once graced Maryland Dog Magazine’s cover as well as the canine ambassador for the local pet charity, Thankful Paws.
Hero recently died from Cushing’s disease. This disease eventually caused a tumor to grow in his adrenal gland, which stopped the flow of blood in his body. Even though he was diagnosed with Cushing’s back in 2015, he lived on medications and had frequent tests with his veterinarian, Dr. Chaudhry at Animal Medical Center in Bel Air.
All was normal until about thirty days before he died. He suddenly stopped responding to the medication that had worked so well for so many years, yet all his blood work came back within the normal ranges for a dog his age. Due to his adverse reaction and weight loss, Dr. Chaudhry and I thought that perhaps we could decrease his amount of medicine like we had done before. The first two weeks went well, he rallied, he was happy and well, good appetite and normal activity level, but Hero was still losing weight. Then, Dr. Chaudhry instructed me to bring him back in for a sonogram within the next few weeks, it was during these final two weeks that Hero became increasingly lethargic. He became less interested in food – I offered him chicken, beef and cheddar cheese, but none of these enticed him to eat.
He only drank water, or should I say gulped more water than ever before in his entire life. These symptoms did not happen all at once, they came in gradually, like the sun setting on the horizon and over the course of two weeks, he would ultimately stop eating, and struggle to even get up.
When Hero saw Dr. Chaudhry only two weeks later, for his sonogram, the tumor was revealed and there was no way of saving him because his body had deteriorated so quickly What is Cushing’s Disease? Cushing’s Disease is a charlatan of other ailments.
Thanks to the dedicated research of veterinarian schools like the Washington State University, it is getting easier to diagnose and treat. However, the beginning symptoms often mimic diabetes, thyroid issues or even just getting older. Some symptoms are: weight gain and muscle loss which contributes to a dog getting that potbellied look; panting and just not being comfortable despite your best efforts and keeping the house the cold; thinning hair or hair loss patches; blackheads; increased thirst and urination and shrinking testicles.
Hero had all these symptoms as he began his fight with Cushing’s Disease but thanks to the proper diagnosis and medicines, Hero had almost no symptoms for many years. Another aspect of Cushing’s is that it generally appears in dogs older than six years of age. Therefore, developing that potbelly in midlife, is not so unusual, wanting to have the house cooler when you are older, is also not so unusual. That’s why it is often difficult to diagnose. The symptoms can go unnoticed for years, and without a keen veterinarian, these symptoms could just be attributed to a dog getting older.
Further, Cushing’s is a stress disorder, also known as hyperadrenocorticism. It is caused by a tumor on the pituitary or the adrenal gland. Hero’s Cushing’s was on the pituitary gland, which is most common in Cushing’s patients.
No matter if the tumor is on the pituitary or adrenal gland, the result is basically the same, the body produces an overabundance of cortisol. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone, which can cause a dog to pant excessively, therefore drink more and urinate more. Cortisol is a needed hormone in all our bodies, but in surplus, it produces inflammation and a host of other ailments.
That is why it is critical to get your dog tested for Cushing’s Disease at the onset of the symptoms. The tests are expensive (a few hundred dollars) but there is no price tag on a proper diagnosis. Also, try to keep your home and lifestyle as peaceful and calm as possible to eliminate any extra stress. I remember asking Dr. Chaudhry, “he’s a dog, what kind of stress could he possibly have?” and Dr. Chaudhry replied, “being too hot, being in a place (even a fun place, like the park) but wanting to go home, and not being able to leave, and having puppies around.” As we know, dogs are very empathetic, and maintaining a peaceful home environment is not only healthy for your dog, but also for you.
What do I do if I think my dog might have Cushing’s?
The first thing I always suggest, is start keeping a logbook of your dog’s behavior, eating and drinking habits. I kept a logbook of Hero for years, I was able to notice even subtle changes and had the documentation to substantiate my findings. We all are busy, and things that are seemingly insignificant to us, can be critical information to the veterinarian for the proper diagnosis and treatment of this or any other disease.
The next thing is to always, always, always talk with your veterinarian. Be honest and upfront about changes in your dog’s habits as well as about your fears. Dr. Chaudhry talked me though every question I had. He took the time to explain things to me, sometimes a few times because it just doesn’t seem real to me that Hero could have a disease. After getting such a diagnosis, I felt like I failed Hero, that I had done something wrong to make him have this disease. If it was not for Dr. Chaudhry and his medical staff reassuring me with their kindness and medical knowledge, I would have continued to blame myself.
It is of paramount importance to make sure you have an excellent relationship with your veterinarian as well as with the entire office staff. Cushing’s Disease requires frequent blood and urine tests to monitor your dog’s health. I was very fortunate to find Dr. Chaudhry because he worked with my budget and my emotions. He understood my fears about the long-term effects of the medicines, and we sought alternative supplements and dietary changes that I believe prolonged Hero’s life. Most dogs only live an average of two years after a diagnosis of Cushing’s, Hero lived four healthy years. Although his death came quickly in the last weeks of his life, I can see that Hero exceeded the normal life expectancy of this disease.
He was a true Hero.
Thankful Paws has partnered with the wonderful staff at the Washington State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and through a link on the Thankful Paws website – thankfulpaws.org/hero an on-going fundraiser has been established to help future generations of dogs with this disease. The veterinarian team at Washington State, headed up by Dr. Tina Owen is leading the nation in pituitary surgical treatments and other related disorders.
When I spoke with Dr. Owen and asked if she believed there would one day be a cure for Cushing’s she replied: “Unfortunately there is not likely to be a cure for Cushing’s disease in the near future.” Her most important advice to anyone with a dog with Cushing’s is “to do your homework and be as well informed about the disease and the medical options as you can. This is a challenging disease; work closely with your veterinarian to learn all you can. There are many decisions to make when deciding on the best treatment option. Being well informed will allow you to make the best decision for your pet and your family.
You can be a part of Hero’s legacy by donating to the Washington State University, College of Veterinarian Medicine as well as volunteering for our 1st Annual Hero’s Legacy Walk for Cushing’s Research this Fall. To learn more about Hero’s Legacy, to donate or volunteer for this event, please visit our website at thankfulpaws.org/hero.