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Dogs with Addison’s disease can live a long and happy life.

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Addison’s disease in dogs

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Addison’s disease is a serious and long-term condition in dogs. Read on to find out how you can identify it early and – with a vet –  get your dog well and happy again.

Addison’s disease, or hypoadrenocorticism, is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition in dogs.

The disease is caused by a reduced production of stress hormones, by glands located next to the kidneys (called the adrenal glands) and requires prompt diagnosis and treatment by a vet.

What are the symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs?

Addison’s disease is a complicated condition and symptoms can vary between dogs. Many dogs show signs that come and go over a period of time, and these signs can be vague and non-specific. These symptoms include: lethargy or depression; inappetence or a poor appetite; no interest in walks or a reluctance to exercise; vomiting and diarrhoea; increased thirst and urination; weight loss.

Dogs can also show signs of hypoadrenocorticism very quickly. This is known as an Addisonian crisis. These dogs are very sick and can be in a state of collapse, in shock or comatose. This is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.

Is Addison’s disease fatal?

Most dogs with Addison’s disease can live a long and happy life, provided they are receiving the correct treatment and have regular check-ups. It is important that your dog gets the correct medication and you follow your vet’s instructions, as if they aren’t taking this correctly they could become very sick. Addison’s is an immunosuppressive condition, meaning that the immune system can struggle to cope with even minor illnesses. Unfortunately, even minor illnesses can be life-threatening or difficult to treat. However, it’s important to remember that well-managed Addisonian dogs can be successfully treated.

How do you treat Addison’s in dogs?

Addisonian dogs require treatment for the rest of their lives. Treatment is usually a combination of corticosteroids (prednisolone) and mineralocorticoids (fludrocortisone). Prednisolone can often be given in tablet form at home, but most dogs require regular injections of fludrocortisone with the vet. Unusual cases, known as ‘atypical Addisonians’, sometimes only need treatment with corticosteroids, however this can change over time – regular check-ups are important. Once treatment has begun, a vet will likely advise regular blood samples, to check electrolyte levels and make sure that the doses of medication are correct.

Very sick dogs, or those presenting in an Addisonian crisis, usually need extra care. These animals are hospitalised for fluids via a drip, and may need medication to help correct their electrolytes. In these cases potassium levels are high and, if not treated quickly, this can lead to arrhythmias –an irregular heartbeat. Cardiac problems can be fatal.

What causes Addison’s disease in dogs?

Addison’s is usually caused by an auto-immune condition, whereby the body attacks the cells of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are located close to the kidneys and are involved in the production of stress hormones (cortisol) and aldosterone, which regulates the body’s levels of sodium and potassium. Less common causes include trauma or infection of the adrenal glands.

Occasionally Addisonian cases arise due to problems associated with a dog’s medication. Dog’s being treated for Cushing’s disease (also known as hyperadrenocorticism) or dogs on long-term steroids can be affected. However, these cases are generally temporary and reversible. Less commonly Addison’s can be associated with a tumour in the pituitary gland of the brain.

Which dog breeds are more prone to Addison’s?

Certain breeds of dogs seem to be more predisposed to developing the condition, including: Portuguese Water Dogs, Bearded Collies and Standard Poodles

Other breeds with a higher reported number of cases include Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Leonbergers and Labradors. Although the disease can affect any breed, including crossbred dogs, it is more commonly seen in young to middle-aged females.

What happens if you don’t treat Addison’s?

Addison’s disease requires treatment. Without this your dog will become sick, leading to serious complications within your dog’s body and they may die. So you absolutely must contact a vet.

What do you feed a dog with Addison’s?

After beginning treatment, most dogs do not require any dietary adjustments. You can continue to feed your dog their usual diet, but it is important to monitor their appetite, as eating less could be a sign that the disease isn’t well controlled. Ensure that your dog has access to clean, fresh water too. Dogs with Addison’s do not need any additional salt adding into their diet.

How much does it cost to treat a dog with Addison’s disease?

Initial blood tests and hospitalisation can be expensive, but prices will depend on your vet and area. Prednisolone tablets are generally very affordable, however replacement mineralocorticoids can cost significantly more. It’s important to remember that, as well as tablets or injections, your dog may require additional blood tests throughout the rest of his or her life. Most vets recommend taking out pet insurance when you first take home your dog, to cover costs associated with conditions like this. Speak to a vet, if you have any financial concerns, and they may be able to help.

What are the early symptoms of Addison’s disease?

Early symptoms of Addison’s disease can be anything from a poor appetite right through to collapse or coma. Most dogs show vague signs of: lethargy or depression; inappetence or a poor appetite; no interest in walks or a reluctance to exercise; vomiting and diarrhoea; increased thirst and urination ; weight loss

In addition, these symptoms may wax and wane over a short or long period of time. Dog’s in an Addisonian crisis can become incredibly unwell over just a few hours and may be collapsed, comatose or have severe sickness and diarrhoea.

Does Addison’s disease cause pain?

Addison’s is not a directly painful condition, however abdominal pain can occur as a secondary problem due to vomiting or diarrhoea. Some dogs may be tense or sore in their abdomen, and may not like to be touched around that area.

Does Addison’s affect the eyes?

Addison’s disease does not generally cause problems with the eyes, and ocular complications are unusual. So if your dog has a problem like this, it's probably best to have a check-up with a vet to find out what this problem is.

What is the most common cause of Addison’s disease?

The most common cause of Addison’s is auto-immune mediated destruction of the adrenal glands by the body’s own immune system. Some cases of Addison’s can be related to long-term use of corticosteroids (prednisolone) that may be used to treat other conditions.

Is Cushing’s disease the same as Addison’s?

Cushing’s disease, or hyperadrenocorticism, is the opposite of Addison’s disease (hypoadrenocorticism). Addison’s is caused by a reduced production of corticosteroids, whereas Cushing’s results from an overproduction of the same corticosteroids. Both conditions can cause excessive thirst and urination, but symptoms are usually very different for the two conditions.

Diagnosis, treatment and prevention of Addison's

In order to diagnose the condition a vet will perform a clinical examination and take a history from you. Often findings on clinical exam are non-specific and further testing is required. These tests include urine samples and blood tests. If electrolyte imbalances (high potassium and low sodium) are found on your pet’s blood test, a vet may suggest an ACTH stimulation test. An ACTH stimulation test checks the body’s ability to produce cortisol. If this is very low following the test, hypoadrenocorticism is usually confirmed.

Treatment of Addison’s includes replacement of corticosteroids and mineralocorticoids. Initially your dog may require injections of both, however with time can usually be managed with oral steroid tablets at home and monthly injections of mineralocorticoids. If your pet is very unwell, they may require intravenous fluid therapy and medication to correct electrolyte imbalances.

Unfortunately there is no way to prevent your dog from becoming Addisonian, but ensuring your dog has regular check-ups with a vet may help to pick up any potential problems sooner.

When should I see a vet?

Always consult a vet, if you have any concerns with your pet’s health. Any changes in your dog’s behaviour, health or demeanour could be signs of illness, and a health check is necessary if you have any concerns. If you have noticed any signs of Addison’s in your dog, speak to a vet as soon as possible.

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