Addison’s Disease

The Great Disease Pretender

Addison’s disease, also called Hypo-Adrenocorticism, is a very serious disease that affects dogs (though humans can also suffer from this condition). Fortunately the condition can be treated, but it is important to know the symptoms and risks of the disease, and which dog breeds are more likely to develop it.

What is Addison’s Disease?

Addison’s Disease is also known as Hypo-Adrenocorticism, which is a more descriptive name for the condition. Dogs affected with this disease do not produce enough corticosteroids.

Corticosteroids are a type of hormone produced by the dog’s adrenal glands. These hormones are very important for keeping a dog healthy, and the list of all their functions is very long. The most basic groups are Glucocorticoids and Mineralocorticoids. Glucocorticoids are very important for increasing the dog’s appetite, and are involved in processing carbohydrates (glucose) in the body.  Mineralocorticoids are essential for the dog’s electrolyte balance, and to regulate blood volume.

A dog suffering from Addison’s disease will not produce enough or any corticosteroids. As a result, the dog’s body will be unable to function properly, which can lead to health complications or even death.

What causes Addison’s Disease?

The cause of Addison’s Disease is not confirmed, though researchers suspect that it is an autoimmune condition. This means that the dog’s own immune system, which is meant to protect the dog from disease, begins to attack the dog’s body instead.

Addison’s disease could be caused by the destruction or damage of the adrenal gland, which produces corticosteroids, or a drug that inhibits the enzymes of the adrenal gland. If these enzymes are inhibited, the body cannot create hormones properly.

One unfortunate way that a dog can develop Addison’s disease is indirectly through the treatment of Cushing’s syndrome. If a dog is artificially given many corticosteroids, then eventually the dog’s body will stop producing its own corticosteroids.

What are the Symptoms?

Addison’s Disease is somewhat difficult to diagnose. The initial symptoms are very vague: the dog may seem a little slow or tired, maybe with a smaller appetite than normal. It is very easy to miss these symptoms. Some veterinarians call Addison’s Disease “the great pretender” because it mimics so many other conditions; for example, a few of the symptoms mimic signs of kidney failure.

Other common symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of body condition, decreasing appetite, and being unable to respond properly to stress. Some dogs also have increased thirst and increased urination. The dog will usually seem cold but won’t even shiver.

How is the Diagnosis made?

As Addison’s disease is so hard to spot, dogs are often only diagnosed once they reach crisis point. The dog may collapse or appear to be in shock. They are usually in very poor body condition, and generally listless or dull. Your veterinarian should perform blood tests and ideally a urine test too.

The blood test will show low levels of Sodium, and high levels of Potassium and urea. The dog’s urine will probably be very dilute. In a sick dog, the dog’s white blood cells show a characteristic pattern called a stress leukogram.   Interestingly, since a dog with Addison’s disease cannot produce stress hormones properly, this stress leukogram will not be present, which can help the vet make the right diagnosis.

To confirm a diagnosis of Addison’s Disease, your veterinarian will need to perform an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation test. This test involves giving the dog a synthetic form of ACTH. The vet will check the concentration of cortisol before and after giving ACTH, to check whether the dog’s adrenal glands are working.

What’s the Treatment?

If left untreated, Addison’s Disease can have deadly consequences for your dog. Luckily this disease can be treated with steroids. The deadly symptoms can be reversed very quickly, but your dog will probably need medicine for the rest of their life.

The usual medication is a monthly injection and daily tablets. Your vet may also wish to perform blood tests once or twice a year, to make sure that everything is all right.

What’s the outlook for my dog?

With treatment, a dog with this condition can go on to live a happy, healthy life. It is important to go for annual check-ups at the vet, and to give the dog the medicine as instructed by your vet. Remember that your dog cannot produce stress hormones(cortisol) to respond to stress , so try to avoid stressing your dog

What dogs/dog breeds are prone to this condition?

Unfortunately, just about all dogs can develop this condition. That said, certain breeds of dog seem to be predisposed to developing Addison’s Disease:

Addison’s Disease often occurs in young to middle-aged female dogs, often around four years of age.

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