Herbs for Cushing's disease in dogs

How nutrition, herbs and acupuncture helped Tess regain her health and vitality after a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease.

I knew something was wrong when my 12-year-old Maltese, Tess, began losing her thick hair. “Old age,” friends said. It sounded reasonable, but a nagging doubt plagued me. Within months, she had lost nearly all the hair on her tail, and I could see pink skin on several other areas of her body. Time to see the vet!

A blood test revealed a high cortisol level. The vet blew it off, citing stress, old age or injury. Unhappy with his diagnosis, I went online and did some research. I found Cushing’s disease. Tess had been exhibiting other signs of this disease for years, and I had been completely unaware of the meaning of the symptoms.

Cushing’s is caused by a chronic overproduction of glucocorticoid by the adrenal glands. Most cases (80%) are due to an increase of the hormone ACTH in the pituitary that stimulates the adrenals to secrete glucocorticoid. The other 20% of cases usually stem from a tumor in the adrenal gland. Typically, the disease begins around middle age and is more common in dogs than cats. It is not partial to breed and is found equally in males and females. Symptoms include hair loss, increased water consumption, urination and appetite, abdominal enlargement or a “pot belly”, and thin skin. Tess had a tendency to drink a lot of water, had a voracious appetite, and sported a plump tummy. Apparently, the hair loss was the last symptom to show up.

Trying the traditional route

I first went to a traditional vet who, after a few tests, concluded that Tess did have Cushing’s. She prescribed Lysodren, which is basically a chemotherapy drug. It kills the excess cells and potentially causes more problems in the long run, but I had no alternative. Tess had to be monitored closely the first couple of weeks. After a month, another test was administered to check her hormone levels. The vet was thrilled with the results.

Tess’s cortisol levels were back within normal range. Tess would be on Lysodren for the rest of her life, but despite the positive response, I was still apprehensive. Six months later, her hair had still not grown back, and I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the medication.

Searching for alternative answers

I researched again, this time looking for alternative treatments, and found a holistic vet close to my area. So I called. During the phone consultation, the vet asked about Tess’s symptoms, medical history and diet. I enthusiastically scheduled a first appointment.

I learned so much that first visit. The vet, Dr. Katherine DeVore, began with the importance of diet. “Nutrition is the basis for health in any species,” she said. She recommended a raw food diet for Tess consisting of meat and vegetables. She gave me a “recipe” that included meats such as chicken, beef, turkey, venison and rabbit, and an assortment of vegetables.

Next, Dr. DeVore checked Tess’s teeth. I had been taking her for dental cleanings, but she continued to accumulate tartar. The vet told me that a raw bone, such as a beef spare rib bone, given about twice a week, would combat the build-up and lower the need for cleanings. It would also be a good source of calcium.

After discussing diet and nutrition, the vet began talking about the alternative treatments she used. “I am trained in Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulas,” she explained. “I utilize a lot of nutraceuticals, which include antioxidants, vitamins, glycosaminoglycans and omega fatty acids.” She has found that Chinese herbs often help in situations where traditional Western medicine has failed. The Chinese believe in the balance of the body’s system, the yin and yang. Based on the particular problem, different herbs are given to help restore balance and reduce sickness.

The last treatment option the doctor suggested was acupuncture. This modality can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and beta-endorphins, that help alleviate pain and produce homeostasis, or internal balance. It can also regulate the digestive system, inflammation and hormones. The Chinese have been using acupuncture on animals since around 621 BC and found that animals have 173 acupoints (sites of stimulation that give a therapeutic homeostatic effect). Humans have 361. Acupuncture can help with a wide range of conditions, including Cushing’s. I knew there was no way Tess would sit still long enough to have needles inserted all over her body. The vet agreed and told me she would use a laser or infrared light that is just as effective as a needle.


Tess’s treatment began with the recommended change in diet. I found a dried concoction of fruits and vegetables from Sojourner Farms that is mixed with meat and water. Tess loves her new food. I’ve also had no hesitation with the raw spare rib bones. I had already been giving her a vitamin/mineral supplement, and Dr. DeVore also gave me an herbal mix of Rehmannia 14 to start Tess on. In a subsequent visit, she added a liquid fatty acid supplement.

Tess has responded amazingly well to the holistic treatment. She was lethargic for the first few weeks, but rebounded and is back to bouncing off the walls. The best news is, that after only six weeks, her hair started growing back. Sure, it’s more work preparing her food, adding all the supplements and taking her for checkups and acupuncture, but she is healthy, energetic and, hopefully, going to be around for a long time!