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Addison’s Disease in Dogs — Why It’s So Hard to Identify

Is your dog lethargic or experiencing diarrhea? Your dog could have Addison's Disease. We've got tips for diagnosing and treating Addison's Disease in dogs.

Jennifer Lesser  |  Jun 14th 2019


While it’s relatively rare, Addison’s Disease in dogs is a condition with symptoms that are common in many different ailments, so it’s often difficult to detect … and sometimes diagnosis is only made through a process of elimination for other diseases.

“There’s not one single set of symptoms that defines Addison’s disease, and when it’s taught in veterinary school, it’s often called the ‘Great Masquerader’ because it can look like almost any other disease,” explains Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian and author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide.

What is Addison’s Disease in dogs?

Holding hands with a sick or injured dog. Photography ©sanjagrujic | Getty Images.

The common name for hypoadrenocorticism, or adrenal insufficiency, Addison’s disease is caused by a below average production of hormones like cortisol by the adrenal glands, which are small glands located near the kidneys. Adrenal hormones are crucial in controlling the balance of salt, sugar and water throughout the body. “Cortisol is a very important hormone produced by the body; without cortisol, if you woke up in the morning, got out of bed and stood up, you’d immediately pass out because your blood wouldn’t reach your brain and gravity would just take over,” explains Dr. Stephen Katz, veterinarian and founder of the Bronx Veterinary Center in New York. The opposite condition of Addison’s disease is Cushing’s disease, which develops when a dog’s body overproduces cortisol. Cushing’s disease is much more common.

There are also three different types of Addison’s disease: primary, secondary and atypical. Both primary and atypical Addison’s are usually caused by immune-mediated damage to the glands, while secondary Addison’s occurs when the pituitary gland fails to stimulate the adrenals with adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The disease is often misdiagnosed because its symptoms mimic many other conditions, and the dog may appear otherwise completely healthy.

Addison’s disease in dogs — what dogs are at risk?

While it can affect any dog, Addison’s disease in dogs tends to present itself most commonly in breeds such as Standard Poodles, West Highland White Terriers, Great Danes, Bearded Collies, Portuguese Water Dogs and Doberman Pinschers, Dr. Katz notes. It also tends to impact younger to middle-aged dogs as opposed to older or senior dogs.

It’s also generally understood that the disease isn’t something that can be prevented. “As I understand it, it’s a genetic roll of the dice; it’s the kind of disease that’s predetermined the moment fertilization happens,” Dr. Richter explains. However, he notes that in some cases it’s inadvertently caused when attempting to treat Cushing’s disease — although that’s rare.

Symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs

According to Dr. Richter, a pet owner may notice that their dog becomes lethargic, starts having gastrointestinal issues like severe diarrhea, or they can even collapse. There’s also something known as an Addisonian Crisis, which occurs when a dog goes into sudden shock due to a circulatory collapse, and can be life-threatening. Of course, any of these symptoms warrant an immediate visit to your dog’s veterinarian.

“Essentially, Addison’s disease is a condition where the dog’s adrenal glands aren’t producing enough cortisone … and a certain amount of cortisone is necessary for these different biological processes,” he adds. “So if a dog is under-producing cortisone, or any other hormones produced by the adrenal gland, it can cause a whole host of physiological problems — and some of them can be life-threatening.”

Diagnosing and treating Addison’s disease in dogs

Since it’s not easily detected by symptoms alone, Addison’s disease in dogs is usually diagnosed with a specific blood test. However, Dr. Katz notes that one of the most notable indicators your pet’s veterinarian might be able to detect via x-ray is a small heart, which is considered to be one of the hallmarks of the disease.

A dog’s treatment will vary based upon which form of Addison’s disease is diagnosed. For most dogs, it will mean taking medication such as corticosteroids, with Prednisone being among the most commonly prescribed, Dr. Katz says. Depending on the nature and severity of the disease, some dogs may need to receive an injectable medication on a monthly basis, while others will require oral medications. The good news is that the disease is treatable and easy to manage once properly diagnosed. “The prognosis is very good once Addison’s is diagnosed,” he confirms. “However, it is a lifelong problem that will require lifelong treatment.”

Thumbnail: ©Monica Click | iStock / Getty Images Plus

About the author

Jennifer Lesser is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. A marathoner, triathlete, and Taekwondo black belt, she specializes in health and wellness — for people and canines — and has written for magazines and websites including Whole Dog Journal, Health, The Spruce Pets, Weight Watchers and Animal Sheltering. She is the proud pet parent of a rescued Cocker Spaniel/Shih Tzu mix named Miles, who has become her favorite running partner. Visit her online at jenniferlesser.com.

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