The Function of Cortisol: What Happens In A Dog’s Body When It Goes Awry?

Cortisol is a vital hormone from the glucocorticoid family of steroid hormones.

The Function of Cortisol: What Happens In A Dog’s Body When It Goes Awry?

Cortisol is primarily produced by a dog’s adrenal glands.

In health, cortisol plays an extremely important role in the ability of dog’s to cope with stress. It stimulates the production of glucose and the breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to provide fuel for the body.

Cortisol also suppresses the immune system.

Unable to increase cortisol production (often combined with an equivalent drop in mineralocorticoids) during times of stress, dogs cannot physiologically deal with even the most common of situations.

Under normal circumstances, this system works beautifully. Stress arrives (as it always will), cortisol helps the dog deal with it thereby reducing the stress, and everything returns to normal.

However, problems can develop when

  • cortisol levels remain too high for too long, or
  • when the body cannot secrete enough cortisol to deal with normal life events.

Too Much Cortisol

Dogs can develop abnormally high levels of cortisol in their bodies for several reasons:

  • unrelenting stress
  • a tumor in the pituitary gland that over-stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol
  • a hormone-secreting tumor within an adrenal gland
  • the use of corticosteroid drugs like prednisone that have similar effects to cortisol

Long term excessive cortisol production or supplementation has a profound, negative impact on the body.

  • immunosuppression can lead to infection
  • the effects the hormone has on glucose metabolism can play a role in the development of diabetes mellitus
  • by breaking down proteins, cortisol can lead to muscle wasting, weakness, and thin, inelastic skin

Cortisol also encourages the kidneys to excrete water producing the classic symptoms of increased thirst and urination.

Dogs under the influence of high levels of cortisol have a ravenous appetite and increase gastric acid secretion (probably to deal with the intake of such large amounts of food). Consequently, this also raises their risk for gastrointestinal ulcers.

Too Little Cortisol

As bad as too much cortisol sounds, too little can be even worse. Abnormally low levels of circulating cortisol can develop because of

  • an abnormal immune response that destroys adrenal tissue. Cortisol and/or mineralocorticoid hormones that are essential for fluid and electrolyte balance may be affected.
  • the sudden withdrawal of high doses of corticosteroid drugs that suppress normal adrenal function

Low levels of cortisol prevent many body systems from working as they should.

Glucose, electrolyte, and water regulation is impaired, which leads to weakness, tremors, dehydration, and increased thirst.

The gastrointestinal tract is particularly affected by producing symptoms such as

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • poor appetite
  • and weight loss

The inability to increase cortisol production (often combined with an equivalent drop in mineralocorticoids) during times of stress, results in dogs being physiologically unable to deal with even the most common of situations.

Exercise, kenneling, trips to the veterinary clinic… anything that increases a dog’s stress level can result in a life-threatening crisis characterized by an extremely slow and irregular heart rate, low blood sugar levels, altered sodium and potassium levels, low blood pressure, collapse, and sometimes death.

Like many things in life, cortisol is part of a Goldilocks scenario. Therefore, the cortisol levels in a dog’s body need to be not too low, not too high, but just right to promote health.

Related articles:
Dog Adrenal Hormones: What is the Difference between Adrenaline and Cortisol?

Further reading:
Cushing’s Disease in Dogs (Hyperadrenocorticism): What Is It?
Addison’s Disease (Hypoadrenocorticism)

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