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Diagnosing Cushing’s Disease in Cats

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Can cats get Cushing's disease? Although it’s rare, cats can get this disorder. It happens more often in older felines, particularly in females.

Cushing’s Disease Explained

This ailment is named after Harvey Cushing. He was the American neurosurgeon to first document the disease in a human patient in 1932. Cushing’s disease or hyperadrenocorticism occurs when the adrenal gland produces too much cortisone, which is also known as cortisol.

You may have heard cortisol called the “fight or flight” hormone. It’s produced and stored in the adrenal gland and then released when something stressful happens. Cortisol has other bodily functions, including helping to control weight, regulate blood sugar, and reduce inflammation.


The adrenal glands are pea-sized organs located near the kidneys, but the production of cortisol is regulated by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. The pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which tells the pituitary gland to make cortisol.

The most common cause of Cushing’s disease in cats is a tumor or growth in the pituitary gland that causes overproduction of ACTH. It can also happen due to a tumor in the adrenal gland that causes it to stop functioning properly.

In addition, cats who are taking oral or intravenous (IV) steroid medications for other ailments are susceptible to Cushing’s disease. If your cat is on this kind of medication, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about what you should do if you notice signs of this disorder.

gray cat sleeping on a tan sofa


The symptoms of Cushing’s disease in cats are often subtle, and they may be difficult to detect in the early stages. Plus, cats tend to hide more than usual or mask their symptoms when they’re sick. This makes detecting any ailment in cats more difficult.

One of the most obvious signs of Cushing’s disease in cats is fragile skin. Your cat’s skin might bruise or break open easily. They may also have patchy hair loss. Other symptoms include:

  • Excessive drinking and urination
  • Increased appetite, which can lead to weight gain
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Potbelly appearance
  • Curling of the tips of the ears

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should contact your veterinarian sooner rather than later. Earlier detection and treatment can help improve your cat’s prognosis.

Cushing’s disease in dogs is seen much more often than in cats. Dogs with this disorder typically have a potbellied look.


Diagnosing Cushing’s disease in cats can be tricky since some of the symptoms are typical of other ailments. Most cats with Cushing’s disease have diabetes, so the presence of this disorder can help your veterinarian narrow in on a proper diagnosis.

To diagnosis Cushing’s disease, your veterinarian will review your cat’s medical history, ask you about the start, type, and severity of their symptoms, and exam them from nose to tail. Your veterinarian may perform diagnostic tests, including bloodwork and urinalysis

They may also use imaging, such as X-rays, ultrasound, or MRI. This can help them get a better understanding of what’s going on for your cat.


If your cat is on a steroid that is causing Cushing’s disease, they’ll need to stop taking the medication. You should only do this under the supervision of your veterinarian. They can help you safely wean your cat off in a way that helps prevent complications of Cushing’s disease and the disorder being treated by the steroids.

While there are medications that can treat Cushing’s disease, they aren’t usually as effective in cats as they are in dogs. These medications work by slowing down the production of cortisol in the adrenal gland. Since it’s not a cure, your cat will need to take this medication for their entire life. Your veterinarian can help determine if drug therapy is the right treatment for your kitty.

The most common treatment for Cushing’s disease in cats is surgery to remove one or both of the affected adrenal glands. After surgery, your cat will need to take medication on an ongoing basis to make up for the loss of their adrenal glands.

Your veterinarian will also test any tumors or growths for cancer. If they are cancerous, your cat may need additional treatments to help eliminate any cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body.

Other treatments are available, including removal of the pituitary gland and radiation therapy for pituitary tumors. Taking out the pituitary gland is a challenging and risky operation, so it’s generally only done in severe situations. Radiation therapy may shrink the pituitary tumor, but it is not widely available and can be expensive.

Need to give your cat a pill? You can try hiding it in a favorite treat or mixing it into their wet food. Just make sure they don’t leave the pill behind.

Post-Surgery Tips for Cats

If your cat needs surgery for Cushing’s disease or any other ailment, you’ll need to take special care of them when they get home to help recover. Your veterinarian will provide you with specific instructions, which may include:

  • Restrict your cat’s activity: You’ll want to make sure your cat doesn’t rip their stitches or open the wound by running, jumping, or stretching their body on a favorite scratching post.
  • Help them rest: Do what you can to ensure they get enough rest during their recovery. For instance, set up a warm and cozy place for them to relax with food and water nearby.
  • Check their wound regularly: Look for redness, swelling, oozing, or other signs of infection. Contact your veterinarian if you see anything that concerns you.
  • Make sure they’re hydrated: Cats are notorious for not drinking enough water, especially if they’re not feeling well. Provide them with easy access to fresh water at all times. You can also feed them wet food, which contains a high concentration of water.

If you have multiple pets in your house, keep them in separate rooms for the time being. They might overstimulate your cat. Curious noses may also try to sniff around their surgical wound and upset your cat or cause painful damage.


If your kitty is diagnosed with this illness, you may be wondering how long can a cat live with Cushing's disease. It really depends on the cause and how early it’s diagnosed.

Some cats respond very well to treatment and go on to live comfortably for years. Others might not have as positive a prognosis, particularly if the Cushing’s disease is related to a cancerous tumor.

Cushing’s Disease and Pet Insurance

Pet insurance can help you cover the costs of diagnosing and treating a cat with Cushing’s disease in your cat. It can cover diagnostic tests, medications, surgery, and follow-up visits. It can also help you manage the expense of cancer treatments. Get the facts on pet insurance before you enroll.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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