In parts one and two of this series, I discussed the fact that there are two types of Cushing’s disease, typical and atypical.
Typical Cushing’s occurs when the middle layer of the adrenal gland over secretes cortisol.
Atypical Cushing’s disease involves the outer and innermost layers of the adrenals and occurs when other types of hormones are over produced. The outside layer over secretes aldosterone, the hormone that regulates electrolytes.
More commonly, the inside layer of the gland over secretes sex hormones – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone precursors.
Although we don’t know why animals develop atypical Cushing’s disease, we do have suspicions about what predisposes pets to suffer this particular syndrome.
Early Surgical Sterilization Plays a Role
In my professional opinion, early spaying and neutering of companion animals certainly plays a role in up-regulation of sex hormone production by the adrenal glands.
When a dog is spayed or neutered before puberty, which is generally around six months of age, her endocrine, glandular and hormonal systems have not fully developed.
Removal of the ovaries and testicles, and therefore all the sex hormones they produce, can become a significant problem later in life, because their bodies require a certain level of circulating sex hormones for normal biologic functioning.
Without the gonads (the ovaries and testicles), the adrenal glands are called upon to produce sex hormones because they are the only other source for them in the body. Over time, the adrenal glands begin to over secrete sex hormones to keep up with the body’s demand.
Not all veterinarians will agree this is what’s happening inside your pet’s body, and many vets don’t even believe in treating atypical Cushing’s syndrome.
At Natural Pet Animal Hospital, we treat a lot of patients with atypical Cushing’s because there are many symptoms that crop up from hormone imbalances that affect an animal’s health, comfort and quality of life.
Re-balancing a pet’s hormonal milieu results in not only physiologic improvement, but improvements in mental and emotional status as well.
In my opinion, it is simple common sense to assume that when critical organs like ovaries and testicles are surgically removed, there will be consequences. I believe atypical Cushing’s is a consequence of early sterilization for many animals.
Xenoestrogens and Other Estrogen Mimics
The second factor that can upset hormone regulation in your pet’s body is a substance called a xenoestrogen. Xenoestrogens are chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.
Because hormone disruption is a central feature of Cushing’s disease, any substance that affects the body’s hormonal balance must be evaluated.
Xenoestrogens are in fertilizers, pesticides, soil, non-organic meats, and plastics – including perhaps your pet’s food or water bowl.
Your pet is exposed to as many external sources of estrogen mimics as you are. This exposure can negatively influence adrenal gland production of estrogens as well as your pet’s endocrine balance.
If your pet has been diagnosed with atypical Cushing’s, you should give some thought to his potential avenues of exposure to external estrogen-like compounds.
Natural Treatments for Atypical Cushing’s Disease
Dr. Jack Oliver, an endocrinologist at the University of Tennessee and an expert on atypical Cushing’s, suggests certain natural therapies to reduce the amount of circulating hormones in an animal’s body.
The first weapon in his arsenal is melatonin, which is non-toxic, inexpensive, without side effects, and has shown to be effective in the early stages of the syndrome.
Melatonin aids in the reduction of both estrogen and cortisol levels in the bloodstream.
In the case of pets with elevated estrogen levels, Dr. Oliver also recommends high lignan flax hulls, not to be confused with flax seed oil which doesn’t contain enough lignans.
Lignans are phytoestrogenic, and they appear to send feedback to the adrenal glands to stop over producing estrogen.
Dr. Oliver’s methods have been shown to be quite effective in helping to manage, but not cure, atypical Cushing’s in canine patients.
Holistically-oriented and integrative veterinarians use a wide range of glandular and homeopathic remedies, nutraceuticals, and Chinese herbs to help manage their atypical Cushing’s patients.
The disease has no cure, so one of the best things you can do for your pet is to find an integrative or holistic veterinarian who is well-versed in a variety of therapies known to have a positive affect on the syndrome.
Identifying the Disease Early
Keep in mind that your pet is never perfectly healthy one day and with a full-blown disease the next. Illness doesn’t happen that quickly.
The only way your dog or cat is fine one day and desperately clinging to life the next is if she’s quite literally hit by a truck. Acute trauma is the only thing that turns a healthy pet into an unhealthy one overnight.
Disease is a process. It exists on a spectrum, and your pet is either headed toward health or away from it. In the case of Cushing’s pets, they are either moving toward immunologic and endocrine balance or away from it.
One of my greatest frustrations with traditional veterinary medicine is that everything is seen in black and white, with no grays.
If your vet is reactive rather than proactive, you will very likely be told your pet is fine despite a litany of small changes and symptoms you’ve noticed and brought to his or her attention.
In the view of traditional veterinary medicine, your pet is ‘healthy’ until he’s very much not.
Allopathic vets tend not to address items in the gray zone – the often slow progression of signs and symptoms that signal a disease in process. They tend instead to wait until your pet’s condition has moved very clearly from the white zone of health to the black zone of disease.
It’s terribly unfortunate, because there’s enormous opportunity within the gray zone to slow down the march toward disease, and depending on the illness, to turn it around altogether.
If you believe your pet’s health is changing and you’re concerned that she might be acquiring Cushing’s disease, ask your vet to check for it. The only way to effectively treat Cushing’s symptoms is to identify the syndrome early.
The only way to get an early diagnosis is to work with a proactive vet who will do the tests I discussed earlier in this video series.
It is an easy matter to monitor bloodwork from one draw to the next to determine trends, changes, and warning signs of an endocrine system disorder in the making. This is what your vet should partner with you to accomplish for the health of your pet.
Most diseases exist in the gray zone for long periods of time. If your pet is in that zone – neither vibrantly healthy nor wracked with disease – now is the perfect time to identify how to halt or slow progression toward the black zone.
I recommend you work with your vet to identify every biochemical change in your pet’s blood work that could be signaling an abnormality. Then dig as deep as necessary to confirm a diagnosis and put a treatment plan into action.
There are some common sense steps you can take to reduce your pet’s risk of developing Cushing’s disease, including:
- Eliminate carbohydrates – corn, wheat and rice. Carbs trigger insulin release. Insulin triggers cortisol release.
- Investigate adrenal-supportive natural substances like magnolia, ashwagandha, phosphatidyl serine.
- Feed a moisture rich, low stress, species-appropriate diet to reduce biologic stress.
- Exercise your pet. Regular exercise helps combat stress and promotes endorphin release, your pet’s “feel good” hormones.