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Addison's disease in dogs

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In dogs, the main cause of Addison's disease is an immune process.  The disease is extremely rare in cats.  Addison's disease can sometimes develop as a side effect of overtreatment for Cushing's disease, or it can be seen after suddenly stopping long-term steroid treatment without a gradual withdrawal period. 

The adrenal glands are small glands that are located next to the kidneys and produce certain hormones that regulate normal body functions.  These hormones include cortisol and aldosterone, which are both essential to health.  In Addison's disease, which is also called hypoadrenocorticism, the adrenal glands don't produce enough of these hormones.

Dogs can show a variety of different signs and symptoms of Addison's disease, including lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea, lack of appetite, shaking, and weakness.  Bouts of illness typically "wax and wane."  Addison's disease is sometimes called the "Great Imitator" because its signs are usually vague and can mirror a variety of medical disorders.  Dogs can intermittently improve with supportive treatments, but the signs will return once treatment is stopped.  Dogs that suddenly start vomiting and having diarrhea and become weak, faint, and collapse may be in what is called an Addisonian crisis.  This is an emergency, and you should seek veterinary attention for your pet immediately.

Diagnosis is based on your pet's history, results of a physical examination, and blood and urine tests.  Additional, more specialized blood tests are used to confirm the diagnosis.  X-rays or ultrasound are sometime done if needed to rule out other causes of your pet's clinical signs.

Addison's disease in your dog can be treated with oral or injectable medications.  Your vet will monitor your dog's progress very carefully, especially at the beginning of treatment.  Follow-up blood testing is necessary to adjust medication dosages.  Medication is needed for life and may need to be increased during periods of stress, such as traveling or boarding.

Q&A

What is Addison’s disease?
Addison’s disease, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, is a condition where the adrenal glands don’t secrete enough hormone.

What causes Addison’s disease in dogs?

Addison’s disease is usually caused by an autoimmune process in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissue.  Addison’s disease can also develop as a side effect of overtreatment for Cushing’s disease, or from suddenly stopping long-term treatment with corticosteroids.

What is an Addisonian crisis?

This is a life-threatening emergency that should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.  Dogs going into crisis will usually start vomiting, then become progressively weak until they collapse. 

How is Addison’s disease in dogs treated?
Your veterinarian will prescribe oral or injectable medications to replace the missing hormones.  Initial treatment may involve a stay in the hospital for intravenous fluid and careful monitoring of your dog’s progress. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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