Understanding Addison’s Disease in Dogs

What is Addison's Disease in dogs?

Addison’s disease in dogs, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, is a condition that can cause a wide range of symptoms. These include lethargy, diarrhea, and vomiting – among many others. Due to the range of possible symptoms being similar to many other conditions, Addison’s disease has earned the nickname “The Great Imitator”.

In more serious cases, Addison’s disease can lead to shock or even death. The good news is that we can treat the condition with medication. Most dogs who get the right treatment at the right time will go on to make a full recovery, and can go on to live a mostly normal life with the correct ongoing medication.

Find out more as we look into the causes of Addison’s disease and the breeds that are most susceptible to it. 

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What is Addison’s Disease?

Addison’s disease in dogs happens when a dog’s adrenal glands aren’t producing sufficient levels of corticosteroid hormones. You’ll find the 2 small adrenal glands next to the kidneys. The job of these glands is to make different kinds of corticosteroid hormones. These are: 

  • Glucocorticoids (like cortisol): for (among other things) fat, protein, and sugar metabolism
  • Mineralocorticoids (like aldosterone): for (among other things) the control of potassium and sodium 

If animals feel stressed, the adrenal glands get stimulated and produce stress hormones. In a dog with Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands don’t produce sufficient hormones to control normal stress levels. Without their corticosteroid hormones, even the smallest stressors can cause serious problems, including death. 

Symptoms of Addison’s Disease in Dogs

Progressive Addison’s disease is difficult to diagnose, mainly because of the range of symptoms.

As a general rule, dogs with Addison’s can get several bouts of gastroenteritis (vomiting and diarrhea). They may have a poor appetite and display a deterioration in body condition. They may also fail to respond to stress in the right way. Symptoms of Addison’s disease can come and go, in classic “waxing and waning” cycles.

Any reduction in aldosterone production has a significant impact on the body. It causes changes in serum levels of potassium, sodium, and chloride which affects the kidneys. This can in turn cause issues with the circulatory system and the heart.

Cortisol, the other big steroid hormone affected by Addison’s, plays a key part in nearly every vital tissue in a dog’s body. It regulates metabolism and blood pressure and it has an impact on the breakdown of fat and proteins. It also suppresses inflammation and counteracts stress.

Reduced production of aldosterone and cortisol leads to the symptoms that pet owners and vets see most often as a result of the disease. Symptoms of Addison’s disease include:

  • Lethargy and depression
  • A lack of appetite and weight loss
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, and bloody stools
  • An increase in thirst and urination
  • Dehydration, a weak pulse, irregular heartbeat, or a low temperature
  • A painful abdomen
  • Hypoglycemia or Hyperpigmentation of the skin

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Which Breeds Are Most Susceptible to Addison’s?

There are many breeds that are prone to Addison’s but the most common ones to get affected are:

  • Labrador retriever and Standard poodle
  • Cocker spaniel and Portuguese water dog
  • Cairn and West Highland White terrier

80 percent of all cases happen in dogs that are less than 7 years of age and most are females.

What is Atypical Addison’s Disease?

Also referred to as secondary Addison’s disease, atypical Addison’s in dogs means they are only deficient in cortisol but not aldosterone. The symptoms are therefore often different. In cases of atypical Addison’s disease, severe symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, hair and weight loss are more common.

Diagnosing Addison’s Disease in Dogs 

Other conditions like Cushing’s disease, pancreatitis, liver disease, renal failure, and Diabetes Mellitus can cause similar symptoms to Addison’s disease. That can make it hard to diagnose.

Vets will tend to carry out several tests to confirm the diagnosis. These include checking sodium and potassium levels in the blood. 

High potassium and low sodium are the key signs of Addison’s disease. However, they may not show up early on while the dog is still making some mineralocorticoid hormone. A vet will not be able to diagnose atypical Addison’s disease by measuring potassium and sodium levels.

A vet may also check for the dog’s urinary cortisol to creatinine ratio. This test looks at the quantity of cortisol excreted by the kidney compared to creatine, a product of muscle breakdown. 

There is also the possibility of an ACTH stimulation test. This test stimulates the adrenal glands. A vet will use ACTH, a type of hormone that helps the adrenal glands produce cortisol. They’ll then check the blood cortisol levels before and after the stimulation.

Addison’s Disease: Treatment and Prognosis 

Your vet will likely treat the disease as an emergency. They’ll want to hospitalize your pet to manage the initial symptoms. When your dog is stable, they will recommend a prescription for replacement hormone medication to assist your dog with dealing with the imbalance. 

There’s typically more than one medication prescribed. These include an injectable mineralocorticoid, often DOCP, monthly, and a daily steroid, prednisone. A vet will usually want to carry out annual or biannual blood work to make sure the medication is working properly.

Addison’s disease or hypoadrenocorticism is not curable. Your dog will have to take these replacement hormones for the rest of their life. The dosage may need adjusting from time to time, particularly during times of stress. 

It takes time to get the correct dosage for a dog with Addison’s disease. You may have to visit the veterinarian several times during the first month after diagnosis. Beyond that, you should expect to take your dog to the vet once a month for a shot of replacement hormones.

Always Consult a Vet

When left untreated, Addison’s disease can be fatal. Dogs that receive well-managed care can live normal lives. They can also expect to have a normal life expectancy.You may have noticed symptoms that might suggest your dog has Addison’s disease or Hypoadrenocorticism. If so, please get in touch with your local vet or one of our veterinary team. Book a timeslot here and get expert advice about your pet in an instant.

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