It starts with thirst. Your dog begins drinking more and urinating more often. They get hungrier, develop a pot belly, and their fur begins to fall out. It could be Cushing’s disease, which affects about 100,000 dogs a year.
Cushing’s disease, says Washington State University veterinary surgeon Tina Owen, is basically an overproduction of hormones or steroids. Without treatment, it can be fatal. It’s caused by tumors growing on the adrenal or pituitary glands. More than 80 percent of cases involve the pituitary gland.
Humans can develop the disease, too. For people, it’s generally treated with surgery. In dogs, the first line of defense is medication, which helps alleviate some symptoms. But according to Owen it can’t cure the disease. In the United States, medication is the common treatment. In the Netherlands, surgery is generally the first option for dogs.
“At Utrecht University, there is a surgeon [Bjorn Meij] who did his PhD thesis on the removal of the pituitary gland,” Owen says. “In the United States, there really hasn’t been anybody who has done this surgery, or perfected this surgery.”
There is one exception. At WSU, Owen and her team specialize in pituitary surgeries to treat Cushing’s in dogs. But don’t expect it to become a common treatment any time soon. First, it’s expensive. Owen estimates the cost of the surgery is between $10,000 and $15,000. Catching tumors early can help to reduce costs, but it means few can afford the treatment. Dogs that show symptoms can undergo an MRI to determine the size and location of tumors.
“There is insurance for dogs, pet insurance,” Owen says. “However, most of the clients that do decide on a surgery like this usually are quite wealthy.”
It’s tougher to estimate the cost of treating a dog medically. It requires medication for the rest of a dog’s life. Radiation is also an option, ranging between $5,000 and $7,000, but likewise is a treatment, not a cure.
The WSU team perform between 10 and 12 surgeries a year, but Owen says they could potentially do one every couple weeks. For the immediate future, their goal is to draw more attention to the program.
“The plan short-term is to build the case load and get more recognition for the pituitary surgery team,” Owen says. “And then we have several other neurologists who are wanting to come to get trained.”
Owen also points to a number of other veterinary schools that want to start performing the surgery. The WSU pituitary team has given lectures around the country and in Europe. Owen says changing the culture of Cushing’s treatment in the U.S. would affect both the demand for surgery and the number of doctors available to perform it.
Owen says that will not drive prices down on its own, but that earlier diagnosis could lead to tumors being removed earlier, which makes the surgery and subsequent recovery less expensive.
Copyright 2017 Northwest Public Radio