Is your dog at risk of hormone disease?

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We hear about it in the vets office, media, from dog owners at dog parks. Hormone disorders are on the rise and just hearing about it is enough to send most of us dog owners into a panic. The good news is,  a hormone disorder is something a dog will usually live with, rather than die from,  as long as proper care and medication is provided.

What are hormones?

Put simply, hormones are chemical messengers that affect the activity of cells and tissues throughout the body. Hormone disorders can affect any breed and although they are uncommon, the four most widespread are diabetes, Cushing’s disease, Addison’s disease or hypothyroidism.

None of these are necessarily a death sentence. The medical management of these disorders has been fine-tuned over the years, allowing us to give these animals a relatively normal life. The treatment for all of them is forever, as there is no magical cure.

If your dog does have a hormonal disease you will become very familiar with visiting your local hospital as treatment requires ongoing monitoring, medication and dedication.

Let’s take a look at the most common hormone disorders:


Most people will be familiar with diabetes, as it is an increasing problem in people, although diabetes in dogs is quite different to diabetes in humans. Nearly all dogs with diabetes are insulin-dependent for the rest of their life, unlike the more common type-2 diabetes in humans that is related to diet, obesity and genetics.

Dogs diagnosed with diabetes are usually in their middle to older years. “Early signs can include drinking more, urinating more frequently, increased appetite and ironically weight loss,” he says. When a dog loses weight this fast, the cause is a failure of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas to produce that hormone, and it’s thought to be associated with the dog’s immune system destroying these cells. As the cells are lost, there is less insulin and glucose builds up in the blood stream. It is then not available as ‘energy’ for the dog.”

So, insulin must instead be administered. This is usually done by way of injections twice daily. This alarms most dog owners. All of a sudden they are faced with having to give injections and they are worried about causing pain to their pet. And while this is a shock on its own, there is also the necessity for the injections to be given strictly 12 hours apart,  even 15 minutes either side can create difficulties. A special diet is also required, and exercise must be regulated and kept to a daily routine to maintain glucose levels.

While medication can be costly, depending on the size of the dog, it is the regimented routine that presents the most problems for owners. Some people just don’t have a lifestyle that is flexible enough, and any change to routine, like holidays, requires careful planning. However most dog owners do adapt and choose to go ahead with treatment. They quickly become used to giving the injections and after a while think nothing of it, even a grandmother in her 80s got the hang of this for the sake of her dog. The injections are simple, and most people give them while the dog is eating its meal and doesn’t even notice.

Dogs that become diabetic can die within weeks if not treated. Once they are stabilized  the biggest danger is weakness, collapse or seizures if glucose levels fall too low.  When a dog is first diagnosed, it will require weekly visits to the vet until insulin and glucose levels are balanced. Testing (which cannot be done at home) will then become less frequent. Dogs normally live a fairly uneventful life with their diabetes, thanks to the commitment and love from their owners, but one serious consequence is cataracts in the lenses of the eyes. This condition will eventually deplete up to 90 per cent of the dog’s sight, but can be corrected with surgery.


Cushing’s disease

This is a condition that occurs when there is an excess of the hormone cortisol. This is the body’s own form of cortisone and is essential for a variety of body functions, including fat production and the response to inflammation.

There are two forms of Cushing’s disease. The most common is when a growth occurs on the pituitary gland, causing an overproduction of a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Smaller breeds of dogs are most likely to be affected with this form of the disease.

The second form is nastier and occurs when an often malignant tumor appears on one of the adrenal glands. These tumors cause the cells to produce excessive amounts of cortisol.

Adrenal gland tumors can sometimes be surgically removed, but if the tumor returns, the condition is likely to shorten the dog’s life. This form usually affects larger breeds.

The more common form can be managed with medication quite well, and as most dogs diagnosed with Cushing’s disease are well into middle age, it is often some other condition that ends the dog’s life.

Initial symptoms of Cushing’s disease include drinking, eating and urinating more, and panting. A dog with Cushing’s can also have fairly dramatic changes in appearance, including a pot belly and hair loss, and may be prone to skin infections.

Dogs with Cushing’s disease will need regular checks that include blood tests and high blood pressure tests to monitor the condition so that the correct doses of medication can be given.


Addison’s disease

This condition is the opposite of Cushing’s disease. It occurs when the adrenal gland is underactive, and it can affect young to middle-aged dogs.

Cortisol is among the hormones which stimulate the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and therefore a lack of it results in a dog that is lethargic and even depressed. Other signs can be a decreased appetite and vomiting. It can actually look just like gastro, so is often difficult to diagnose.

Blood tests will confirm if the symptoms are caused by Addison’s. The treatment is ongoing tablets, and regular blood tests are required to monitor cortisone and electrolyte levels.

Stress such as kenneling usually requires the dog to have higher doses of medication. Owners of dogs with Addison’s disease need to anticipate and recognize stressful situations.



This condition is the result of low thyroid hormone production by the thyroid glands in the neck. It is a less dangerous condition than the three listed above, but will still require lifelong medication.

Signs of this condition are subtler and may include skin and coat changes, some with hair loss and skin infections. More obvious symptoms can be nerve changes that can affect the nerves in various parts of the body, including the face, reproductive problems and sometimes lethargy and weight gain.

However, most dogs respond extremely well to treatment, the medication is not overly expensive, and there are rarely any long-term complications of this disorder and its management.




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