What is Addison’s Disease in Dogs?

Addison’s disease is an adrenal gland disorder affecting dogs, cats, and humans. In dogs, it can be caused by either an autoimmune disorder (hypoadrenocorticism (HA) or an infectious condition.

The adrenal glands are two small organs that sit atop the kidneys. They produce hormones that help regulate many body functions, including blood pressure, electrolyte balance, sugar levels, and water retention. 

When the cortisol and aldosterone production by your dog’s adrenal glands is inadequate, the condition is called primary Addison’s disease. On one hand, when there is insufficient ACTH produced by the pituitary gland, it is considered a secondary/atypical Addison. Both conditions can be differentiated via a blood test and are more common in young to middle-aged female dogs.

Addison’s disease causes your dog’s immune system to damage the adrenal cortex such that it cannot produce enough cortisol and aldosterone to maintain normal bodily function.

Does Addison’s Disease in Dogs Come on Suddenly?

Yes, Addison’s disease can come on suddenly but usually develops slowly over time. Some cases may take months or even years for symptoms to appear. Dogs with Addison’s disease will often have other health abnormalities, such as hypoglycemia, Cushing’s disease, and chronic infections, that can lead to a crisis episode.

Breeds like standard poodles, West highland white terriers, Rottweilers, Nova scotia duck tolling retrievers, Great Danes, Labrador, bearded collies, and Portuguese Water Dogs are more prone to Addison’s disease than others.

What are the Symptoms of Addison’s Disease in Dogs?

Clinical signs are non-specific; they can wax and wane for a long time. But here are signs of Addison to look out for if you suspect that your dog might have Addison’s:

  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Intermittent gastrointestinal issues
  • Weight loss
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration (dry, tacky gums)
  • High levels of chloride and calcium in the blood
  • Weakness or lethargy (lethargy)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
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How does Addison’s Disease Start in Dogs?

Addison’s Disease in dogs can be inherited or acquired due to an infection or injury to the adrenal gland. Here are the most common causes of Addison’s disease:

Autoimmune: Autoimmune-mediated destruction of the adrenal tissue causes damage to the cells in both adrenal glands, leading to a shortage of cortisol and aldosterone. Autoimmune diseases trigger the body to attack its cells or tissues — in this case, nerve cells responsible for secreting hormones like cortisol and aldosterone. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

Infectious: Infectious organisms can also cause Addison’s disease. These include viruses such as mumps and measles that attack nerve cells; bacteria such as tuberculosis; fungi like histoplasmosis; and parasites such as toxoplasmosis.

Radiation exposure: Radiation exposure from X-rays or cancer treatment can damage your adrenal glands and lead to Addison’s disease. This includes radiation therapy for Hodgkin lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes). People who receive CT scans have an increased risk of developing Addison’s disease due to radiation exposure from CT scans of the abdomen and pelvis that use iodine contrast agents.

How do You Test a Dog for Addison’s Disease?

There are many ways to test for Addison’s disease, including blood tests, urinary tests, and an ACTH stimulation test.

The ACTH stimulation test: The ACTH stimulation test measures the quantity of cortisol produced after giving your dog a dose of synthetic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

The low-dose dexamethasone: The low-dose dexamethasone suppression test measures how long it takes for your dog’s body to stop producing cortisol at normal levels after being given dexamethasone (a type of synthetic corticosteroid).

Blood tests: Blood work is one of the most common methods used to detect the presence of low cortisol levels in dogs with Addison’s disease. However, these tests can’t distinguish between primary adrenal gland failure (when the adrenal gland doesn’t produce enough cortisol) and secondary adrenal gland failure (when the pituitary gland doesn’t release enough ACTH).

Urinary tests: These tests measure the number of 17 ketosteroids in your dog’s urine sample. These steroids are produced by the adrenal glands when they aren’t working properly.

How do You Treat Addison’s Disease in Dogs?

There are many treatment options available for pups with Addison’s disease. The best approach depends on the severity of symptoms, how quickly they develop, and your dog’s age.

Medication for Addison’s Disease

Most dogs with Addison’s disease may receive regular hydrocortisone, desoxycorticosterone pivalate, prednisone, or fludrocortisone supplementation, which replaces the missing hormones their adrenal glands produce. This is known as flushing therapy because it causes the dog’s body to release large amounts of stored cortisone-like hormones like glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids.

In addition to replacing cortisone, you may also need to give your dog medications that stimulate the parathyroid gland so it can release more calcium into his bloodstream (which will help his bones remain strong). If you notice changes in your dog’s personality or behavior while he’s being treated for Addison’s disease, talk to your vet about adjusting his dosage accordingly.

Does Addison’s Disease in Dogs Go Away?

Yes. Some pets with Addison’s disease will recover after an illness or stressful event that triggers a temporary crisis in their body chemistry. However, in other cases, the condition may progress without treatment and lead to the death of your dog.

What do I Feed a Dog With Addison’s Disease?

The dietary management of dogs with Addison’s disease is the same as that of humans with Addison’s disease. These dogs must be maintained on a low-sodium concentration diet to help control their potassium levels.

The diet should be high in protein and include foods high in phosphorus (meat, milk, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and eggs). Foods that are high in calcium also may be beneficial because calcium helps regulate sodium excretion.

Dogs should avoid high-protein diets because they can cause complications related to renal potassium levels.

It is important to monitor your dog’s blood glucose levels closely since they often cannot produce enough insulin. Consult a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) before administering anything to your dog, including fluid therapy, glucose tablets, and insulin.

How Serious is Addison’s Disease in Dogs?

Addison’s disease is a serious condition that can cause life-threatening complications if left untreated. It can result in sudden weakness, diarrhea, severe vomiting, and sometimes fainting (Addisonian crisis). Pet parents should consult with a veterinarian immediately. While there is no cure for Addison’s disease, it can be managed with proper treatment.

Addison’s disease occurs when the adrenal glands fail to produce enough hormones to keep your dog healthy. The adrenal glands are above both kidneys and produce three hormones: cortisol, aldosterone, and adrenaline.

Cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels and maintains normal blood pressure. Aldosterone stimulates the kidneys to reabsorb sodium (salt) from urine and secrete potassium into the urine. Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by each adrenal gland’s adrenal medulla (inner part). It causes the heart rate to increase so that more oxygen can be delivered throughout your dog’s body during stressful situations such as being frightened or injured.

If one or both of your dog’s adrenal glands become damaged or diseased, it may stop producing enough essential hormones needed for survival.

How do I Prevent Addison’s Disease in Dogs?

The best way to prevent Addison’s disease is to keep your dog as healthy as possible. That means regular vet physical examinations, routine vaccinations, and a diet rich in vitamins and minerals.

All dogs should receive annual physical exams and be up-to-date with their vaccinations. You should also ensure your dog gets plenty of exercise because physical activity boosts the immune system and helps keep your pup’s body healthy.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s health, talk to your vet about setting up a schedule for regular checkups. During these exams, your vet will perform an examination and run tests to look for signs of illness or disease.