Addisons Disease in Dogs

Addisons disease in dogs (aka canine hypoadrenocorticism or adrenal insufficiency) is not common but, when it occurs, is a very serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. This page looks at the different forms of Addison's disease, the signs and symptoms, conventional treatment, as well as natural remedies that can be used to treat canine Addison's disease.

Addisons Disease in Dogs Addison's disease is a condition in which there is insufficient corticosteroid secretion from the adrenal glands.

This disease is the opposite of Cushing's disease. In Cushing's disease, the adrenal glands produce excessive corticosteroids.

While Addison's disease in dogs is not as common as Cushing's disease, it still occurs quite frequently in the dog population, especially among young to middle-aged female dogs. Statistically, among dogs with Addison's disease, about 70-85% of them are females between 4 and 7 of age.

Breed-wise, it seems that certain breeds are more susceptible to this disease. They include, among others, the Great Danes, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Wheaten and Airedale Terriers, Westies, Basset Hounds, and Standard Poodles.


Functions of Adrenal Hormones

Corticosteroids are produced by the cortex (outer area) of the adrenal gland. One of the most important functions of corticosteroids is to make it possible for animals like dogs and cats to react and adapt physiologically to stress.

There are two groups of corticosteroids: glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids.

You may guess from the prefix gluco- that this group of hormones are related to metabolism of fuel such as carbohydrate. Indeed, glucocorticoids regulate the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. When a dog, for example, is in a dangerous or stressful situation, these hormones prepare the body to metabolize fuel for energy.

Mineralocorticoids, on the other hand, regulate electrolyte balances of sodium and potassium. In a dangerous situation, these hormones help the dog's body to conserve sodium in preparation for possible blood loss. Conserving sodium means potassium is lost as a result.

As you can see, corticosteroids are indispensable for animals to physiologically adapt to stressful situations.

Forms of Addisons Disease

There are three forms of canine Addison's disease:

Primary Addison's

This is the most common form of canine Addisons disease. It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the adrenal glands, causing damage to the glands making the glands fail to product sufficient amount of the corticosteroid hormones.

Another cause of primary Addison's disease is a tumor of the adrenal gland.

Secondary Addison's

Secondary Addison's disease is the result of a lack of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), whose function is to stimulate the adrenal gland to produce corticosteroids. ACTH is produced by the pituitary gland, which may fail to produce sufficient amount of ACTH due to injury, inflammation, or a pituitary tumor.

Atypical Addison's

Just like primary Addison's, atypical Addison's occurs when the adrenal glands fail to work properly. In cases of atypical Addison's, however, the adrenal glands fail to secrete sufficient amount of the glucocorticoid hormones only, whereas the electrolyte balances are usually normal.

Symptoms of Addisons Disease in Dogs

Unfortunately, the symptoms of Addison's disease are not distinct and as such many dogs may be suffering from the disease for a while before a positive diagnosis can be made. Some of the more common symptoms are:

  • lethargy;
  • appetite loss;
  • vomiting;
  • diarrhea;
  • dehydration;
  • weight loss;
  • muscle weakness;
  • blood in vomit and/or stools.

As you can see, the above symptoms are very common and non-specific, resulting in frequent mis-diagnosis. For example, Addison's dogs may be misdiagnosed as having IBD, parasite infestations, or infections.

In addition, sometimes the symptoms may come and go for a while, making diagnosis all the more difficult.

Often, the disease may not be properly diagnosed until an episode called an "Addisonian crisis" finally occurs. (Approximately 30% of dogs with Addison's disease are diagnosed at the time of an Addisonian crisis.)

In an episode of "Addisonian crisis", the dog suddenly collapses in shock because his body fails to adjust to an imbalance of electrolytes and fuel metabolism during a period of stress.

The result of an Addisonian crisis? Usually the dog will have very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high potassium levels. Hypoglycemia can cause seizures.

Also, heart problems such as slow heart rate and arrhythmias (irregular heart beat) may result. In most cases of Addisonian crisis, dogs have elevated BUN and creatinine levels, which may cause vets to misdiagnose the problem as being acute kidney failure.

Severe cases of an Addisonian crisis can be fatal to the dog.

Diagnosis of Addisons Disease in Dogs

A definite diagnosis can be made using the ACTH response test. Basically what this test does is to measure the levels of cortisol before and after an injection of a form of the pituitary hormone ACTH.

As ACTH stimulates the adrenal gland to produce corticosteroids, the level of cortisol after the injection of ACTH should increase in normal healthy dogs. If both the initial cortisol levels (before and after ACTH injection) are low, the dog is diagnosed as having Addison's disease.

To determine which type of Addisons disease the dog has, more tests need to be done to test the electrolytes and endogenous ACTH levels.

  • Atypical Addison's Disease: ACTH response test positive, and electrolytes are normal.
  • Primary Addison's Disease: ACTH response test positive, and endogenous ACTH levels are elevated.
  • Secondary Addison's Disease: ACTH response test positive, and endogenous ACTH levels are low or even undetectable.

Treatment for Canine Addison's Disease

Conventional treatment for Addisons disease in dogs is hormone replacement. Depending on the type of Addison's disease (primary, secondary, or atypical), one or more drugs are used to replace one or both of the hormones (mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids) in the dog's body.

For primary Addison's, the most commonly used drug is Florinef (fludrocortisone). As well, there is an injectable medication called DOCP (Percorten V) that is given under the skin every 25 days. This drug works primarily to regulate electrolytes, so in addition to regular injections of Percorten, hormone replacement is required.

In cases of secondary or atypical Addison's disease, only glucocorticoid replacement (e.g. Prednisone) is needed.

Because stress can worsen the conditions of Addisons disease in dogs, if you have a dog with Addison's, be sure to minimize stress and help your dog manage stress better.

This include, for example, increasing the dosage of prednisone when your dog is stressed by illness, injury, or other traumatic events.

In addition, think about the extra stress that annual vaccinations and heartworm preventives may put on your dog. Before letting your vet give your Addison's dog any annual booster shots, insist on a titer test.

Also discuss with your vet whether heartworm preventives should be given to your dog based on where you live (whether mosquitoes are aplenty) and on the dog's condition.

Natural Remedies for Addisons Disease in Dogs

Glandular Therapy

One key natural treatment for Addisons disease in dogs is glandular therapy (GT), which involves using whole animal tissues or extracts of the adrenal gland. GT is used quite often by holistic vets to treat dog patients with autoimmune diseases.

In the case of Addison's disease, when the adrenal gland tissues or extracts of the gland is fed to a dog patient, and when these proteins pass through the dog's gut immune tissue, it is thought to desensitize the body's immune response to these proteins, thus calming the body's response to its own similar tissue (in this case, the dog's own adrenal gland).

During this process, immune cells are transformed from "attacking" or "inflammatory" cells to "regulatory" cells, which are less reactive.

Holistic vets believe that since the modern dogs' diet usually does not contain glandular tissues, dogs are more prone to the development of chronic and autoimmune diseases.

They suggest that dogs should be fed home-cooked foods that include glandular tissues such as liver, kidney, and spleen to prevent or minimize the onset of such diseases.

If your dog has Addison's disease, you may want to discuss with a holistic vet the possibility of using glandular therapy.

Herbs and Supplements

While natural remedies cannot regenerate the adrenal glands, proper use of natural supplements and herbs can dramatically slow down the progression of Addisons disease in dogs. The key is to provide suitable nutrients to maintain a healthy body and a strong immune system.

In particular, the following herbs and supplements are beneficial:

  • Herbs: Nutritious herbs (especially those rich in beneficial minerals and vitamins for the proper functioning of the adrenals) such as dandelion, parsley, spirulina (blue-green algae) and nettle can be fed to a dog with symptoms of Addison's disease.

    The herb licorice is an adaptogenic herb, which can help the body deal with stress. Other relaxing herbs that may benefit dogs with Addison's disease include oatstraw and Chamomile. Brew a tea of any of these herbs and add it to the dog's food.

    Immune-boosting herbs such as garlic, oregano, turmeric, and astragalus are also essential to strengthen the dog's immunity.

    The herb milk thistle is also helpful as it assists the liver's detoxifying pathways.

  • Natural Foods and Supplements: Dogs with Addison's disease can also benefit from essential fatty acids as well as antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and A, and selenium.

    Vegetables and fruits rich in bioflavinoids (e.g. broccoli, spinach, red bell peppers, blueberries) are also beneficial as they strengthen the dog's metabolism and immune system.

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