I'm going to assume that your dog has been vaccinated against certain “killers” like parvo, rabies, distemper and heartworms. If he/she hasn't, go to your Vet right now!

We’ll also assume that your dog is over 6 years old. Autoimmune diseases can strike any dog at any age, but are more prevalent in “senior” purebreds. Keeping it simple, think in human terms of AIDS, lupus and (sometimes) fibromyalgia. These diseases interfere with the body’s ability to fight off infections; a common saying among human physicians is that nobody dies of AIDS; they die from AIDS-related complications like pneumonia, infections, and cancer. So it is also in the canine world.

One of my Dachshunds was recently diagnosed with pemphigus, an immune-related skin disease of at least one layer of skin. The three different types of pemphigus involve different layers of the skin. My dog goes against type in that Twist is only three years old. Like other autoimmune disorders, pemphigus has not stricken his full-blood siblings or my other Dachsies; its cause is unknown. (My physician-husband says this is called an “idiopathic” cause because doctors are too idiotic to understand it!) This disease causes a gradually-developing series of pustules on the surface or deep skin layers of the nose, around the eyes, in the ears, on the chest, groin and/or foot pads, under the dog’s arms, along the mouth, or a combination of any/all these. As it develops, pemphigus looks an awfully lot like “canine leprosy.” Untreated, it becomes truly horrible in appearance. To the unenlightened, it looks sort of like infected mange although this unrelated skin disorder is caused by mites. Like AIDS in humans, your dog won’t die of pemphigus although she will suffer and is likely to die from infections of the pustules. Pemphigus is diagnosed through area biopsies and blood analysis; it’s treated with high-dose steroids and an anti-cancer drug; once in remission, it could never reappear or may occur periodically throughout the life of the dog. Any infections respond very well to traditional antibiotic treatment. Be patient! Pemphigus can take months to clear completely.

Cushing’s Disease is also found in humans, and for the same reasons. 15% of canine Cushing’s, also called hyperadrenocorticism, is caused by an overproduction of the hormone cortisol by a malignant tumor(s) on the dog’s adrenal gland. It can also be caused by small, benign tumors on the pituitary gland (15% of cases). A third cause occurs among dogs who are on sustained steroids for another condition like severe arthritis or allergies. Excessive cortisol causes huge stress within the dog’s body, affecting all vital organs. Don’t let Cushing’s fool you; symptoms can appear to be those of normal aging in dogs over six. Get to a veterinarian right away if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Excessive thirst and urination, especially numerous household “accidents”
  • Either ravenous appetite or anorexia
  • A pot-bellied appearance
  • Skin and hair abnormalities
  • Poor wound healing
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Exercise intolerance, fatigue and lethargy
  • Numerous infections
  • Nervous behavior like circling, wandering, muscle tremors and staggering
  • Excessive panting
  • Diabetes
  • Facial swelling
  • Vomiting
  • Cataracts
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Once you relate these symptoms to a veterinarian, his/her first thought will be to test your dog for Cushing’s Disease through a series of definitive laboratory tests. Try not to worry excessively if the tests are positive; treatment of pituitary tumors involves medications, rarely with surgery. Treatment of adrenal tumors that are usually malignant require removal of the affected adrenal gland. If caught in time, Cushing’s is managed, not cured through surgery, medication and lignan (flaxseed) supplements. Your dog can be made infinitely more comfortable, living on happily for years. Lack of accurate diagnosis and treatment will ultimately result in a difficult, prolonged death. In some untreatable cases, euthanasia is a viable option.

I, too, have had a brush with canine Cushing’s Disease. More than two decades ago, my Cocker Spaniel, Amber, began to have thinning hair on her back along with ugly pus-filled abscesses under her skin that wouldn’t heal. She was nine years old, with usually robust health aside from some periods of lethargy and anorexia. I became certain that something was very wrong when one day she appeared to be distressed and jumped onto my chest where she urinated profusely. This behavior was very atypical for Amber. It also alarmed my husband who suspected Cushing’s right away. Amber’s vet confirmed the diagnosis as advanced Cushing’s. Because she was a poor surgical risk by this time, Amber entered the terminal stage of this disease; a year later she had a massive stroke and we elected to tearfully euthanize her. I still miss her.

Help came too late for Amber, but I’m comforted knowing that early identification and treatment can mean everything to your dog and to you.