We will begin this section by noting that pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome does not always require treatment. The ultimate goal of therapy is to improve the patient's life quality and to fortify the patient's bond with his or her owner so if the Cushing's patient is not having problems with his or her symptoms, treatment may not be indicated. In deciding whether or not to treat Cushing's syndrome, consider symptoms that this particular individual patient is dealing with. For example, if the patient is drinking excessively but is not urinating in the house, this may not be a problem. If the patient has recurrent bladder or skin infections, high blood pressure, urinary protein loss, or is so hungry as to be raiding the kitchen regularly then he or she needs treatment.
There are two medications commonly used in the management of pituitary dependent Cushing’s disease: Lysodren® (also called Mitotane or o,p’-DDD), Trilostane (brand name Vetoryl®). These medications are associated with different side effects potential and expense and any of them can be expected to produce good results in a confirmed case of pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome. Two other medications: Ketoconazole and Selegiline are also sometimes used but with less reliable results.
Lysodren® (generically known as mitotane and chemically known as o,p’-DDD) has been the only treatment for pituitary dependent Cushing’s disease until relatively recently. It is convenient to use and relatively inexpensive, though it does have the potential for very serious side effects. Because this medication has been in use for canine Cushing’s disease for decades, most veterinarians have extensive experience with its use and with the monitoring tests needed to prevent side effect difficulties. One of the disadvantages of Lysodren® therapy is the need for regular monitoring blood tests.
Lysodren® should be considered to be a drug of chemotherapy. It actually erodes the layers of the adrenal gland that produce corticosteroid hormones. The pituitary tumor continues to secrete excess stimulation but the adrenal gland is no longer capable of excess hormone production in response. Instead, if everything has gone according to plan, the adrenal cortex will have been eroded away so as to yield normal (rather than excessive) cortisol production. Over several months all the symptoms of Cushing's syndrome resolve and the patient feels active and happy.
Cut surface of adrenal gland (the outer layer, in yellow, is
(original graphic by marvistavet.com)
Problems result when too much of the adrenal cortex is eroded. Short-term Lysodren® reactions are common (something like 30% of dogs will have one at some point), necessitating the use of a prednisone antidote pill that the veterinarian supplies. In event of such short term reactions, Lysodren® is discontinued until the adrenal gland can re-grow to the desired thickness and therapy is resumed, possibly at a lower dose. Sometimes excess adrenal erosion is permanent and the dog must be treated for cortisone deficiency. This is more serious and the potential for this kind of reaction has been the driving force behind the search for better medications for the treatment of pituitary dependent Cushing’s disease (though it is worth noting that in Europe it is common to purposely create a cortisol deficiency -see the section below on Addison's disease.)
There are two phases to the treatment of Cushing’s disease with Lysodren®: an induction phase to gain control of the disease and a lower dose maintenance phase which ideally lasts for the animal’s entire life.
During induction, the pet owner receives a prescription for Lysodren® (usually obtained through a local human pharmacy) plus a bottle of prednisone tablets to be used as an antidote should any Lysodren® reactions erupt. Be sure you understand which pill is which. Lysodren® is given twice a day with meals during this period so that the plump, excessively stimulated adrenal gland can be rapidly shaved down to the desired size. It is very important that Lysodren® be given with food or it will not be absorbed into your dog’s body. A test called an ACTH stimulation test (the same test which may have been used to diagnose Cushing’s disease originally) is used to confirm that the induction endpoint has been reached.
An approach gaining popularity involves reducing the dog's food intake by 30% the day before induction begins to ensure the dog is very hungry for induction. The food is restricted in this way throughout the induction period. The endpoint of induction is determined by a subtle reduction in the patient's appetite (looking up half way through eating the bowl of food, not running to the bowl as quickly as usual, not finishing the meal etc.) Should any of these signs be observed, this would indicate that the endpoint of induction has been reached and it is time for the ACTH stimulation test. Induction proceeds until endpoint has been reached but if 8-9 days have passed and a clear endpoint has not been observed, the dog should have the ACTH stimulation test at that time anyway
Note: Lysodren® therapy should never be used in a dog that does not have a good appetite.
A Cushing's dog that does not have a good appetite has an additional problem
which must be diagnosed before pursuing therapy for Cushing's syndrome.
You should call your veterinarian if any of the following signs observed:
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Appetite loss (this may be as subtle as less enthusiasm towards eating when the food is served, not running for the bowl etc.)
- Decrease in water consumption (it may be helpful for you to measure water consumption during the induction period)
- Lethargy or listlessness
These signs indicate not only that endpoint has been reached but that a Lysodren® or Addisonian reaction is probably occuring (see below) and your dog may need to receive the antidote. When endpoint is reached, the dog should have an ACTH stimulation test within 24 hours if possible.
It is a good idea to maintain daily telephone contact with your vet after the third day or so of induction as it is at this point that a dog becomes at risk for reaching an early induction endpoint.
If none of the above signs are noted, then the ACTH Stimulation test proceeds as scheduled on the 8th or 9th day of induction. If this test indicates that sufficient adrenal erosion has taken place, then the Lysodren® dose is given once or twice a week instead of twice a day and the dog has successfully entered maintenance. If the test indicates that more adrenal erosion is needed, induction may be continued or the maintenance dose may simply need to be higher than originally planned. Most dogs have reached maintenance by the 16 th day of induction but others require more time, especially if they are taking concurrent drugs that alter the metabolisim of Lysodren®. (Phenobarbital would be the obvious such medication.)
After achieving maintenance, another ACTH stimulation test is recommended after about a month and then twice a year or so thereafter. Approximately 50% of dogs will experience a relapse at some point and require a second round of induction or a change in maintenance dose.
- Full reversal of clinical signs associated with Cushing’s disease can be expected after 4 to 6 months of Lysodren® therapy. Usually the first, sign to show improvement is the excess water consumption. The last sign to show change will be hair re-growth.
- If appetite loss, vomiting, diarrhea or listlessness occur at any time during maintenance, a Lysodren® reaction should be suspected. The veterinarian should be notified; it may be time for one of the prednisone antidote pills. A Lysodren® reaction generally reverses within 30 minutes on an antidote pill.
Trilostane is an inhibitor of an enzyme called
3-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase. This enzyme is involved in the production of several steroids including cortisol. Inhibiting this enzyme inhibits the production of cortisol. Several studies have determined this medication to be as effective as Lysodren® in the treatment of Cushing's syndrome.
Trilostane is given once or twice a day with food. Common side effects are mild lethargy and appetite reduction especially when medication is started and the body adapts to its hormonal changes. Addisonian reactions (see below) have been reported where the adrenal cortex actually dies off. Most reactions are minor and can be reversed with discontinuation of the trilostane; however, permanent Addisonian reactions are possible just as with Lysodren®. While these permanent reactions are generally dose-dependent with Lysodren®, they are "idiosyncratic" with trilostane meaning that they can occur unpredictably and at any dose. For this reason, monitoring blood tests are just as important with trilostane as they are with Lysodren®. In two studies, the risk of permanent or life-threatening Addisonian reaction was 2-3% with trilostane (and 2-5% with Lysodren®).
As with Lysodren®, dose is modified according the results of periodic ACTH stimulation tests (at 10-14 days, 30 days, 90 days, and then every 6 months). One might ask why one might consider trilostane given that its monitoring is similar to that of Lysodren® while its dosing schedule is less convenient. Initially it was believed that because trilostane uses an enzyme inhibitor with reversible effects, trilostane would not have the potential to cause a life-threatening Addisonian reaction. This is no longer felt to be true but at least there is an alternative effective medication for pets that do not tolerate Lysodren® or who have had difficulty achieving regulation with Lysodren®.
- Trilostane does not erode the adrenal cortex. Its action is as an enzyme inhibitor and the inhibition it causes is fully reversible. It is unclear why Addisonian reaction is still possible with this medication. In theory it should be safer.
- Because initial references to trilostane suggested it was safer than Lysodren®, it is possible for a pet owner to have a false sense of security and ignore important signs of drug reaction.
- Some dogs do better with once daily administration and for other dogs, the medication simply does not last long enough to allow for once daily dosing. Monitoring tests will help determine what regimen is best for a given patient. Timing of the monitoring blood tests relative to the administration of the medication is much stricter with trilostane than with Lysodren®.
- Lysodren® costs substantially less since it is given less frequently.
- Trilostane is given once or twice daily while Lysodren® is given only once or twice a week.
Addison’s disease, also called hypoadrenocorticism, is the opposite of Cushing’s disease; Addison's disease results from a deficiency of cortisone. If Lysodren® erodes away too much of the adrenal gland or if there is an idiosyncratic trilostane response, an Addisonian reaction occurs which can be temporary or permanent. The symptoms mentioned above (vomiting, diarrhea, listlessness, appetite loss) may be seen and if untreated, the patient can go into shock and die. If one suspects an Addisonian reaction is occuring, a dose of prednisone (which has hopefully been provided to keep on hand in case of emergency) should reverse the reaction within 30 minutes (a couple of hours at most). If no response to prednisone is seen, the dog has some other illness. If the dog is back to normal after the prednisone dose, then the veterinarian should be contacted for further instructions. The prednisone will likely have to be continued for a couple of weeks.
Addison’s disease can be permanent after a drug reaction. If this occurs, hormone supplementation becomes needed indefinitely to prevent life threatening shock as the body becomes unable to adapt to any sort of stress on its own. Medications to treat Addison's disease can be very expensive, especially for larger dogs, and it is generally felt that the induction of Addison’s disease is undesirable.
It should be noted that there are some specialists who feel that the treatment of Addison’s disease is much simpler than the treatment of Cushing’s disease. They use Lysodren® at high doses on purpose with the goal of inducing Addison’s disease and administering long term treatment accordingly. This is not a common method of treating Cushing’s disease in the U.S. and if "medical adrenalectomy" is performed, it is done in a very controlled way.
See more information on Addison's disease, which can also occur in animals (and people) as a natural occurance with no help from Lysodren®.
At the present time, meaningful treatment with medication involves a choice between trilostane and Lysodren® but in the years before trilostane was available in the U.S., alternatives for dogs intolerant of Lysodren® were in great demand. Ketoconazole, an anti fungal medication, was found to have steroid suppressing side effects which could be exploited in the treatment of Cushing's syndrome. Unlike the other drugs, ketoconazole did not pose a risk for Addisonian reaction. Unfortunately, sustained responses were hard to come by and since more effective alternatives have emerged, ketoconazole is now relegated to its original function: the treatment of fungal disease.
Selegiline (also called L-Deprenyl or Anipryl®) acts by increasing dopamine and consequently reducing ACTH production. The problem is that this type of ACTH regulation does not work well when a pituitary tumor is involved as tumors tend not to respond to regulation like normal tissues do. Selegiline breaks down into amphetamines (strong stimulants) which may therapeutic in other ways to Cushing's patients. Side effects are minimal though there is some expense compared to the other medications used for the treatment of Cushing's syndrome.
Since pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome is caused by a pituitary tumor, the question arrises about removing the tumor surgically. This treatment has received more attention recently but the location of the pituitary (at the base of the brain) makes surgery problematic. Surgery is not at this time a common treatment in the U.S. and very special facilities are required for this type of surgery. Unless, you live in a unique community where there is a surgeon with extensive experience in this as yet esoteric procedure, we recommend sticking with the medical therapies.
Choosing a therapy for pituitary Cushing's syndrome should take into account efficacy, cost, monitoring schedule, dosing schedule, and side effects potential. In the future, surgical options are likely to come forward as they have in the treatment of human Cushing's syndrome. Please direct further concerns and questions to your regular veterinarian as you pick an option.
Page last updated: 4/18/2015