Causes of Addison's Disease in Dogs

BY | July 03 | COMMENTS PUBLISHED BY
Causes of Addison's Disease in Dogs

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There are several reasons the adrenal glands stop producing cortisol, thereby causing Addison's disease. Learn more here to help protect your dog from this disease.

Like humans, pets are susceptible to Addison’s disease. Hypoadrenocorticism, the medical term for Addison’s disease, occurs when the production of cortisol is hindered by a disruption to the adrenal or pituitary glands. Without cortisol and other important hormones, your pet will not be able to manage stress, and can also undergo an electrolyte imbalance that is not sustainable.

The Importance of Cortisol

The adrenal glands are located by your pet’s kidneys. These glands are responsible for producing hormones and steroids that are crucial to organ function and other actions within the body. Cortisol is an important hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. It is responsible for managing stress, as well as your pet’s “fight or flight” response. Additionally, cortisol aids in maintaining blood pressure, promoting cardiovascular function, regulating metabolism and glucose levels, and stimulating appetite. Addison’s disease causes the adrenal glands to stop producing enough cortisol to keep your dog healthy.

Causes of Addison’s Disease

There are several reasons the adrenal glands stop producing cortisol. Injury to the outer tissues of the adrenal glands caused by immune reactions is the most common one. Damage to the glands can be caused by infection or inflammation, medication reaction, tumors, or cancer. If damage to the adrenal glands is the cause of Addison’s disease, symptoms may not occur until up to 90 percent of the adrenal cortex has been destroyed.

If there are issues with the pituitary gland, the gland in the brain responsible for signalling the production of cortisol, Addison’s disease may also result. And lastly, withdrawal from steroid treatments such as prednisone can trigger Addison’s disease, especially if the steroids are stopped abruptly. In these cases, pets are at risk of Addisonian Crisis, or shock due to circulatory collapse.

Whatever the cause, symptoms of Addison’s disease should be carefully monitored. If you notice signs of this illness, check in with your vet to see if Addison’s disease could be the cause.

Symptoms of Addison's Disease in Dogs

Addison’s disease is traditionally associated with humans, but initial diagnoses in the 1950s proved that it also affects dogs. The symptoms of this disorder are similar to those of other pet diseases, causing vets to frequently misdiagnose the underlying issue - a chronic lack of cortisol. With proper treatment, pets with Addison’s disease can lead normal lives. If left untreated, however, this disease will lead to death, so it is important to factor in chronic cortisol deficiency as a culprit when the following symptoms occur.

Symptoms of Addison’s Disease

Symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs may not show up consistently. Many pets will display mild symptoms that seem to resolve, and then repeat again down the road.

Though the signs of Addison’s disease will vary from dog to dog, they include:

Weakness: Dogs with Addison’s disease will have less energy, and may have bouts of lethargy and listlessness. Dogs may appear to have muscle weakness, shakiness, or wobble when they walk.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms: Diarrhea and vomiting is a common symptom of Addison’s disease. Also look out for dark, tarry stools caused by gastrointestinal hemorrhage, and blood in vomit.

Changes in Eating and Drinking Habits: Dogs with Addison’s disease tend to increase their water intake in a noticeable way, and will urinate more frequently. They may also experience appetite and weight loss.

Signs of muscle and joint pain, nervousness, and depression are also common in dogs with Addison’s disease.  When a dog is under duress, the body produces cortisol, so without a normal level of this hormone, clinical signs can worsen.

Addisonian Crisis

Though dogs with Addison’s disease can seem otherwise healthy, they may go into sudden shock due to circulatory collapse. This is known as Addisonian crisis, and can be one of the first signs to a pet owner that Addison’s disease is present. Addisonian crisis is an endocrine emergency that occurs when sodium levels and body fluids are depleted. If Addisonian Crisis occurs, pets must be taken to a veterinary hospital immediately.

Common Misdiagnosis of Addison’s Disease

The symptoms of Addison’s disease are commonly associated with other illnesses, which has earned it the nicknames “the great imitator” and “the great pretender.” Vets misdiagnose Addison’s disease with conditions such as kidney failureliver diseasegastrointestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, urinary blockage, and pancreatitis due to their similar symptoms. Even an Addisonian crisis can be misdiagnosed as acute renal failure.

Many vets consider Addison’s disease an uncommon disorder among dogs, though misdiagnosis of its symptoms could mean it is simply underreported. Vets who routinely test for Addison’s disease find more frequent occurrences than what is thought to be the norm. Check with your vet about testing if you notice any of these symptoms associated with Addison’s disease.


This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking professional advice due to what you may have read on our website.

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