Q: Please help me! My hamster has just been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease. Is Vetoryl a safe treatment for her to take?
A: Cushing’s disease is a common ailment of pet hamsters. Cushing’s disease is due to an overproduction of cortisol from the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are located in the abdomen next to both the left and right kidneys.
One type of Cushing’s disease is called Primary Adrenal Gland disease. In this case, one of the two adrenal glands is abnormal and producing too much cortisol on its own. In Secondary Adrenal Gland Disease, the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol due to illness in the brain. The pituitary gland in the brain releases hormones that cause the adrenal glands to produce and release too much cortisol. The normal feedback mechanisms that prevent the release of too much cortisol are not present, and both adrenal glands overproduce cortisol.
The overproduction of cortisol has many effects on a hamster’s body. One common effect is that your hamster will begin to drink much more water than normal and urinate many more times than normal. Your hamster’s appetite may also increase dramatically. Another effect is on the skin. Your hamster will start to lose hair along her flanks until almost all body hair has been lost. Finally, the large concentration of cortisol circulating in the bloodstream leads to immune suppression and your hamster becomes prone to infections. These infections can manifest in many ways. Urinary tract infections are common as are skin infections. Sometimes, a skin parasite such as Demodex can cause severe secondary disease.
One drug used to treat Cushing’s disease in dogs, Vetoryl, has been used in hamsters. Other drugs such as mitotane have also been used. These drugs all have side effects and the veterinarian and owner must weigh the benefits versus the risks these drugs bring with them.