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What is Addison’s Disease in Dogs?

The symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs can vary widely and may initially be subtle or mistaken for other conditions. Frustratingly, clinical signs are often vague with a tendency to come and go.

Dr. Karen Whala

December 29, 2023

Addison’s disease, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, is a rare but serious endocrine condition that can affect dogs. It occurs when the adrenal glands, located next to the kidneys, do not produce enough hormones (glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids) to maintain normal bodily functions. These hormones are essential for regulating various processes in the body, including metabolism, electrolyte balance, blood pressure, and response to stress.

Causes and Risk Factors

Addison’s disease in dogs is typically a hereditary disease, causing an autoimmune reaction where the immune system inappropriately attacks and damages the adrenal glands. However, there are other potential causes including infections, cancer, trauma, or in response to the administration of certain medications.

While Addison’s disease can affect dogs of any age or breed, certain factors may increase the risk. For example, female dogs and young to middle-aged dogs tend to be more susceptible. Breeds that are commonly associated with Addison’s disease include Standard Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, Great Danes, West Highland White Terriers, Wheaten Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, and Bearded Collies.

Symptoms of Addison’s Disease In Dogs

The symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs can vary widely and may initially be subtle or mistaken for other conditions. Frustratingly, clinical signs are often vague with a tendency to come and go. Some common signs include:

  1. Lethargy and weakness: Dogs with Addison’s disease often exhibit a lack of energy and may become easily fatigued.
  2. Poor appetite: Affected dogs may lose interest in food, become unusually picky, or show a decreased appetite.
  3. Weight loss: Unexplained weight loss is a common symptom of Addison’s disease.
  4. Vomiting and diarrhea: Gastrointestinal disturbances such as vomiting and diarrhea can occur.
  5. Increased thirst and urination: Dogs may drink more water than usual and consequently urinate more frequently.
  6. Shaking or tremors: Muscle weakness or tremors can be observed in some cases.
  7. Depression or changes in behavior: Dogs may appear sad, depressed, or exhibit changes in behavior.

It is important to note that these symptoms can also be indicative of other medical conditions. Therefore, it is crucial to consult a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing Addison’s disease in dogs can be challenging due to its non-specific symptoms. However, veterinarians employ various diagnostic tests to confirm the condition. These may include:

  1. Blood and Urine tests: Blood and urine samples are analyzed to assess electrolyte levels, particularly sodium and potassium, as imbalances are commonly seen in dogs with Addison’s disease.
  2. ACTH stimulation test: This test measures how the adrenal glands respond to the administration of a synthetic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The presence of ACTH normally stimulates the adrenal gland to produce a hormone called cortisol. The test measures cortisol levels before and after the administration of ACTH; dogs with Addison’s disease typically show a lack of response to ACTH stimulation and will have inadequate cortisol production.
  3. Abdominal ultrasound: An ultrasound examination may be performed to evaluate the size and appearance of the adrenal glands.

Managing Addison’s Disease In Dogs

Managing a dog with Addison’s disease involves a combination of medication, monitoring, and lifestyle adjustments. Here are some management tips for dogs with Addison’s disease:

1. Medication Management:

  • Hormone Replacement Therapy: The primary treatment for Addison’s disease in dogs is hormone replacement therapy. This typically involves the administration of oral medications such as fludrocortisone acetate and prednisolone to replace the deficient hormones.
  • Regular Administration: It is crucial to administer the prescribed medications regularly and according to the veterinarian’s instructions. Missing doses can lead to a potentially life-threatening Addisonian crisis where pets may exhibit severe weakness, abnormal or slow heart rhythms, collapse, vomiting, diarrhea, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and potentially fatal electrolyte imbalances. Immediate veterinary attention is crucial if an Addisonian crisis is suspected.

2. Monitoring:

  • Regular Veterinary Check-ups: Dogs with Addison’s disease require regular check-ups with a veterinarian to monitor their condition. This may involve blood tests to assess hormone levels and overall health.
  • Monitoring Symptoms: Pet owners should be vigilant in observing their dog for any signs of dysregulation or worsening symptoms. Promptly report any changes in your dog's symptoms or condition to your veterinarian.

3. Stress Management:

  • Minimize Stress: Stress can exacerbate symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs as Addisonian dogs can’t produce adequate stress hormones. Minimizing stressors in the dog’s environment and providing a calm and stable routine is important. If you anticipate an upcoming stressful event such as travel or changes in the home your veterinarian may want to increase your dog’s medication to accommodate the added stress.
  • Gentle Exercise: Regular but gentle exercise can be beneficial for dogs with Addison’s disease, but strenuous activities should be avoided as the body will interpret them as additional stress.

4. Diet and Nutrition:

  • Balanced Diet: A well-balanced diet is essential for dogs with Addison’s disease to support overall health and well-being.
  • Consistent Feeding Schedule: Establishing a consistent feeding schedule can help regulate the dog’s metabolism and aid in medication management.

5. Emergency Preparedness:

  • Awareness of Emergency Signs: Families with an Addisonian dog should be knowledgeable of the signs of an Addisonian crisis, such as severe weakness, abnormal or slow heartbeats, collapse, and vomiting, and be prepared to seek immediate veterinary care if the need should arise.
  • Emergency Kit: It may be advisable to have an emergency kit prepared with instructions from the veterinarian in case of an Addisonian crisis.

6. Palliation and End-of-Life Care:

  • Keep your dog safe and comfortable, pay attention to gradual changes in their ability to navigate to fresh water/food, and appropriate places to go potty.
  • Ensure they get adequate hydration, nutrition, and pain management if needed.
  • Watch for changes in your dog’s quality of life; using a scoring tool can help.

7. Communication with Your Veterinarian:

  • Open Communication: Maintaining open communication with the veterinarian is crucial for the ongoing management of Addison’s disease in dogs. Any concerns or changes in the dog’s condition should be promptly discussed with the veterinary team.

8. Education and Support:

  • Pet Parent Education: Understanding the nature of Addison’s disease and its management is essential for families with an Addisonian dog. They should seek reliable information from their veterinarian or reputable sources.
  • Support Groups: In some cases, joining support groups or online communities for families with dogs suffering from Addison’s disease can provide valuable support and insights.

Prognosis and Long-Term Care

With appropriate treatment, most dogs with Addison’s disease can lead normal lives. However, it is essential to remain vigilant and follow the veterinarian's instructions carefully. Regular check-ups and blood tests are necessary to monitor hormone levels and adjust medication dosages as needed. Addisonian crises are life-threatening and need urgent veterinary intervention. Again signs of an Addisonian crisis can include severe weakness, slow and irregular heart rhythms, collapse, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), vomiting, and diarrhea.

A Gentle Goodbye At Home

Addisonian dogs who are well-regulated have a good prognosis and can enjoy a regular life span. However, if the disease is unmanaged there is a near certainty that the dog will suffer an Addisonian crisis in time. Regardless of why the disease may be unmanageable, whether it is an inability to medicate, lack of access to ongoing veterinary monitoring, or inability to regulate hormone levels it is important to consider the type of goodbye you wish your pet to experience.

While each family will approach the question of “when is the right time” differently, the important thing is to have the discussion, explore the options together, and plan ahead of time. A scheduled dog euthanasia appointment affords families the ability to control when, how, and where they say goodbye. If you are facing euthanasia for your pet, learn more about in-home dog euthanasia or find a CodaPet veterinarian in your city, so you can feel prepared and support your beloved dog as they approach the coda, or concluding movement, of their beautiful journey.

Dr. Karen Whala

Fresno, CA

About

Dr. Karen Whala has always had a soft spot for the older pets she’s treated in practice and saw a need for these beloved pets to pass peacefully at home rather than in a clinic setting. To that end, she started Peaceful Passing in 2018 to help families assist their terminally ill, injured, or suffering pets as they transitioned from life in the Fresno and Clovis areas. She finds that pets are so much more relaxed and peaceful when they pass at home, and it is truly a gift owners give their furry friends. Dr. Whala grew up in the Eastern foothills of Fresno County in the small towns of Dunlap and Miramonte. She obtained her Bachelors of Science degree in Animal Science and Management at UC Davis. During her youth, she operated a children’s petting zoo and traveled to schools, birthday parties, and library functions educating children on animal care. Her animals included everything from iguanas and ducklings to lambs and frogs, and it was during these formative pet-owning years that she decided to become a veterinarian. In 2006, Dr. Whala graduated with her veterinary degree from UC Davis. She began practicing at a local area mixed animal practice and worked with dairy cattle, horses, dogs, and cats and later transitioned to small animals exclusively. She took a few years break from private practice, during which she earned a Masters in Public Health and Board Certification in Veterinary Preventive Medicine. When Dr. Whala returned to private practice, it was to start Peaceful Passing. Dr. Whala lives in Fresno and keeps busy working at a local clinic part-time, helping families assist in the peaceful passing of their pets, volunteering with Pathfinders (a boys and girls club), backpacking, and hosting friends in her home. ‍ Read More