Addison’s Disease in Dogs: How They Get It and What to Do

There are many conditions and diseases to be on the lookout for with dogs, but Addison's Disease is an important one. Addison's disease usually affects younger, female dogs, but any dog can be susceptible to this tricky disease.

If you're worried that your dog might have Addison's disease, you should call a veterinarian immediately. However, if you're curious about what Addison's is and if it's something you should be worried about for your dog, this article is here to help. 

A tan pug looks concerned. He sits wrapped in a neutral blanket while sitting on a white bed.

What is Addison's Disease in Dogs? 

Addison's disease, known by its clinical name of hypoadrenocorticism, is a disease of the adrenal glands. Dogs with hypoadrenocorticism have adrenal glands that don't produce enough of certain types of hormones, specifically different kinds of steroids. Hormones are essential for helping to regulate processes in the body such as: 

  • Blood pressure 
  • Electrolyte balance 
  • Stress responses
  • Metabolism
  • Other vital functions 

Because the adrenal glands help with many functions, your dog will suffer in several ways when they aren't working properly. 

A tan small dogs sits at the foot of a chair while a woman is sitting reading a book.

What Causes Addison's Disease in Dogs? 

While the ultimate cause of Addison's disease is from having adrenal glands that aren't producing enough hormones, it's not always obvious what the underlying issue is. 

In most cases, adrenal gland failure is caused by an autoimmune condition where your dog's immune system is attacking itself. As it does this, it breaks down the tissue around the adrenal glands and compromises them, causing reduced production of certain hormones. 

In addition to autoimmune disorders, here are a few other things that can damage the adrenal glands and cause Addison's Disease. 

  • Blood clots
  • Cancer
  • Granulomatous disease 
  • Medications such as lysodren, trilostane, and ketoconazole

Because of the many possible underlying causes, it's important to get your dog to a veterinarian immediately when they display signs suspicious for Addison's Disease. Getting to the root of the problem is vital to successfully treating the condition. 

A beagle lays on a white rug while looking off camera while waiting for diagnostics for Addison's disease.

Signs and Clinical Signs of Addison's Disease

Addison's isn't just a serious disease, it's also a very confusing one. The hormones of the adrenal glands are responsible for many different functions. For this reason,problems can manifest in different ways when they aren't working properly. Because of the many different signs of Addison's Disease, it's tough for veterinarians to diagnose the disease on clinical signs alone. 

Some of the most common clinical signs of Addison's disease include: 

  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Pale gums 
  • Increased thirst and excessive urination 
  • Patchy or thin skin coat 
  • Muscle cramps and weakness 
  • Chronic dehydration 
  • Muscle loss
  • Depression 
  • Lethargy and tiredness 
  • Low blood sugar
  • Pain in the abdominal area
  • Diarrhea and vomiting that recurs periodically 
  • Slow heart rate 
  • Collapse

Many of these signshappen seemingly at random and without warning. They come and go, which means that your dog may be sick one day and okay the next. Stress seems to worsen the condition as dogs do not produce enough cortisol. This leads to illness during periods of stress.

It's unknown why, but certain breeds are more prone to Addison's Disease than others. The most at-risk breeds include Poodles, Great Danes, Border Collies, West Highland White Terriers, Portuguese Water Dogs, mixed Poodle breeds, and others. Although hypoadrenocorticism is most common in these breeds and younger dogs, it can happen to any dog anytime. 

An Australian Shephard puppy wearing a blue harness sits outside in a green grasslawn.

How is Addison’s Disease Diagnosed? 

As we said before, Addison's Disease is very difficult to diagnose on the clinical signs alone. It's also difficult for pet owners to know that their dog has Addison's until the clinical signs become severe. In some cases, it can even result in an Addisonian crisis, when symptoms of Addison's disease can jeopardize your dog's life. 

If it gets to this point, your veterinarian must stabilize your pet while trying to determine the underlying condition. This often consists of three main things: 

  1. Your dog's history 

Your veterinarian will ask you questions about your dog's health history. Have they exhibited these signs in the past? What other abnormalities has your dog shown in their life? Does your dog have any other known illnesses or conditions? Signs of Addison’s Disease come and go, which means that your veterinarian will rely on your memory to help with their diagnosis. 

      2. Diagnostic Testing

While the outward signs of Addison's disease vary greatly, the effect that it has on canine hormones is similar. Many of these abnormalities are detectable with basic urine and blood tests, which will show if there are hormone deficiencies. 

A few telltale signs of Addison's disease in dogs are a high potassium, lack of stress response on bloodwork, and abnormal levels of calcium, sodium, and chloride. Addison's disease can also affect the heart, so your veterinarian might order an EKG for your dog to check for electrical abnormalities. 

      3. Testing your dog's adrenal function

Finally, your veterinarian might order a special ACTH stimulation test designed to check your dog's adrenal glands' responsiveness. This is a fairly simple test, and is the gold standard of diagnosis. 

An older beagle dog waits attentively at the vet  to receive Addison's disease treatment.

Treatment Plan for Dogs With Addison's Disease 

Remember, owners often wait to take their dogs to the vet for Addison's disease until they're in life-threatening condition. This isn't necessarily the fault of the owner. It's simply because it's hard to catch Addison’s disease based on clinical signs alone. 

However, because your dog’s life is in immediate danger, your veterinarian's first goal will be to stabilize them. Once your dog is stabilized, your veterinarian will perform diagnostic tests to confirm Addison’s disease. Then, they can start their treatment. 

The main goal of treatment is to get your dog’s electrolyte and hormone levels back to where they should be. This includes intravenous fluids and hormone replacement therapy. Hormones are usually administered as an oral supplement daily and a monthly injection. 

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for Addison’s disease in dogs, which means they will require hormone replacement treatment for the rest of their lives. There also isn’t any known way to prevent Addison’s disease from afflicting your dog in the first place. 

A tan and white poodle mix dog lays on a gray bed while looking to the viewer with anticipation.

When to Call a Vet 

If you notice recurring clinical signs in your dog, such as vomiting, nausea, lethargy, lack of appetite, unexplained weight loss, pale gums, or any other known signs of Addison’s disease, you should contact a veterinarian. You don’t want to wait until your dog is in Addisonian crisis to get them the help they need. 

When Should I Bring My Pet To The Emergency Vet?

Your vet can then evaluate your dog and determine the best course of action moving forward. They may also be able to catch Addison’s disease quickly and begin treating it before the clinical signs worsen. 

Posted on 20, October

Fact checked by Veterinarian

Dr. Paula Simons

Dr. Paula Simons is an Emergency and Critical Care veterinary resident on her way to becoming a veterinary criticalist. She is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and completed her veterinary training in Ontario, Canada, at Ontario Veterinary College. Dr. Paula Simons has a particular interest in critical care nutrition, trauma, and pain management. She enjoys the management of surgical patients and troubleshooting complex cases. Additionally, she is a huge advocate for her patients and ensuring their comfort. She has two cats named Moo and Kal, whom she loves dearly. More About Us

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