Addison’s Disease In Dogs

addison's disease in dogs

How well does your dog deal with stress?

When dogs are stressed, their bodies produce cortisol. But if your dog has Addison’s, that production is inhibited. This can have some serious impacts on your dog’s body.

Addison’s disease in dogs is less common than its opposite condition, Cushing’s disease (the overproduction of cortisol), but it’s just as important to recognize and manage.

So, do you know what it is or how to spot it?

What Is Addison’s Disease In Dogs?

Addison’s disease is an endocrine disease caused by an inadequate production of hormones by the adrenal glands. The two most important hormones are cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol is vitally important for healthy responses to stress, and it’s also important in regulating many body functions. Aldosterone regulates potassium and sodium levels.

Addison’s is hard to diagnose – the symptoms tend to come and go and vary in frequency and severity. An acute Addisonian crisis is a life-threatening emergency.

If your dog has a history of unexplained intermittent symptoms such as the following, then Addison’s may be the cause:

  • Lethargy
  • Gastroenteritis (vomiting, diarrhea, no appetite)
  • Blood in vomit or diarrhea
  • Weight loss or difficulty putting weight on
  • Shaking
  • Poor ability to cope with stress (symptoms worse after stressful events)
  • Drinking/urinating too much (polydipsia/polyuria)

Other signs that your vet will look out for are weakness, depression, low body temperature, dehydration, black poos (melena), a weak pulse, hair loss, slow heart rate, or even a history of collapsing in an acute crisis.

How Does Addison’s Develop?

Addison’s occurs when the tissue in the adrenal glands that makes cortisol and aldosterone is destroyed.

The most likely primary cause of this damage is autoimmune disease, but the tissue can also be destroyed by tumors (primary or metastatic), granulomatous disease (this is an inherited primary immunodeficiency disease), or after an overdose with mitotane, a drug used to treat Cushing’s disease in dogs.

Secondary hypoadrenocorticism can happen following withdrawal of prolonged treatment with cortisone, an isolated ACTH deficiency, an underactive pituitary gland, or a non-functional pituitary tumor.

Addison’s is most common in middle aged female dogs. Several breeds have a genetic predisposition to Addison’s:

  • Standard Poodles
  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Great Danes
  • Bearded Collies
  • Portuguese Water Dogs
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers
  • Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers

BUT this disease can affect any breed or sex of dog.  Facts of Addison's disease in dogs

How Is Addison’s Diagnosed?

As I mentioned, it can be hard to diagnose, even for an experienced vet! Many of the signs are non-specific or are seen in other common dog diseases so can be mistaken for other issues.

In my opinion, if you have a dog that has trouble coping with stress, or who’s symptoms get worse after stress, this is a huge red flag. Also, if your dog has been treated with cortisone for these sorts of symptoms in the past and responded well, this may be an important clue (though I know most people reading here on DNM wouldn’t be likely to use cortisone!).

Blood tests can be of value. In a dog with Addison’s disease, you’ll likely see anemia (reduced red blood cells) and increased numbers of two kinds of white blood cells – eosinophils and lymphocytes.

The biochemistry of your dog will be out of whack too, with increased potassium levels, decreased sodium and chlorine levels, increased calcium levels, increased liver enzymes, decreased glucose levels, and azotemia. (Azotemia is an increase in nitrogen containing compounds in the blood – in particular urea and creatinine.)

A urine test will often show that your dog cannot concentrate the urine properly, and there may be other electrolyte abnormalities found.

Definitive diagnosis is going to require a day in the veterinary hospital for your dog, where they will have an ACTH stimulation test done. Your dog will be injected with a dose of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone, a natural hormone produced by all healthy dogs), and this should cause the adrenals to produce cortisol and pump it into the bloodstream. If the serum cortisol doesn’t increase, you know for sure that your dog has Addison’s disease.

An ultrasound can also give a lot of useful information about the size of the adrenal glands. They’re usually smaller in cases of adrenal insufficiency.

How Is Addison’s Treated?

Unfortunately, once the adrenal tissue is gone, the only way to keep your dog healthy is replacement hormone therapy with cortisone and fludrocortisone acetate. (If you have a dog with confirmed secondary hypoadrenocorticism, they will only need cortisone.) It will likely take some time and a series of blood tests to make sure that all the electrolyte levels have settled into the normal range.

Also, Addisonian dogs usually benefit from an increased dose of cortisone in times of stress.

Please note that some dogs will only need cortisone supplementation at times of stress. The side effects of cortisone are much worse than of fludrocortisone acetate, so the less you need to use it, the better!

Prevention And Holistic Care

Right then – let’s step out of the box and consider how we can help dogs with Addison’s disease as naturally as is possible.

Prevention is a big one here, and a super healthy, complete, raw, whole food diet is the best place to start.

Remember, the prescription hormone replacement therapy may be life-saving, even though I always like to try everything else first. And please be aware that this illness can become a life-threatening emergency, so it may be in your dog’s best interest to start off on the prescription hormone replacement and then integrate the other treatments in while adjusting dose rates, with regular electrolyte tests to assess response.

If your dog is not severely affected, then you may wish to try a completely holistic health plan and see how that goes. If you take this route, I do encourage you to do so in partnership with a vet, so you can have regular blood tests to see how your dog is responding to treatment, and be ready to seek veterinary attention if symptoms worsen.

Prevention is a big one here, and a super healthy, complete, raw, whole food diet is the best place to start.

Avoid all processed food like the plague. Also, if you have a breed that’s pre-disposed, be very sensitive to any of the symptoms and take extra care!

RELATED: It’s not difficult to switch to a raw diet … 

Over-Vaccination is likely to be a contributing factor. Avoiding all but the most necessary vaccines is super important, and if you’re forced to vaccinate your dogs, be sure to treat them homeopathically before and after to minimize any damage.

RELATED: Titer testing is an important tool that you can use to prevent over-vaccination …

Be alert to the subtle symptoms and insist on an ACTH test if you have had multiple bouts of the symptoms with no definitive reason why. The earlier you catch this, the more likely it will be that a holistic intervention will be helpful.

I believe it is possible for the adrenals to regenerate to at least some extent in some cases. The more holistic treatments you integrate into your dog’s health plan, the better the chances are of this happening.

Here are a range of holistic interventions for you to consider.

High-quality supplements: liver support, omegas, mineral supplements, pre- and probiotics and multivitamins are all going to make a big difference.

Also consider intensive antioxidant supplementation. Even 6-12 blueberries a couple of times a day can make all the difference.

You can trial your dog on natural hormone replacement with extracts of adrenal glands (and other organs) that contain non-synthetic hormone replacement. The Canine Adrenal Support supplement from Standard Process is a great one.

Herbal medicines may be of value: There are many herbs that support overall well-being and help the body return to health. Licorice herbal tincture is one of my favorites. Work with a herbalist to find the ultimate list and for the correct dose rates!  

Make sure your dog’s spine is healthy and supple, especially around the 3rd lumbar vertebrae. The energy flow from the spine to the adrenals is here. Bodywork and chiropractic care may be helpful if there’s a problem in this region of the spine.

Acupuncture/Acupressure: Assessment and treatment by a skilled acupuncture or acupressure practitioner will also help, sometimes a lot! This approach helps reset the health and well being of your dog’s body at a very deep level, and sometimes leads to almost miraculous responses.

Minimize stress and treat any PTSD: Stress is poison for dogs who have Addison’s, so make sure that your dog is happy and relaxed. If they have a traumatic history, consider a hands-on therapy such as the Whole Energy Body Balance or any other bodywork modality from a skilled practitioner.

Cannabis extracts/CBD: This is so good for supporting vital well-being, but its main benefit is as a natural calming supplement. Research shows that CBD Oil is very valuable when it comes to reducing anxiety and stress, which can cause Addison’s symptoms to increase. Be sure to source a whole plant extract.

RELATED: Why does CBD work so well for stress? It’s all about the endocannabinoid receptors …

If your dog is struggling with Addison’s disease, I wish you luck and courage. If you do need to use prescription hormone replacement therapy, be sure to integrate all the holistic options into your treatment plan. At the very least, you may be able to reduce the amounts of prescription drugs required.

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