Atypical Addison’s Disease In Dogs 

Joanne Keenan
Atypical Addison's Disease In Dogs

Stress can kill … so it can be a serious threat if your dog has Addison’s disease … especially if your dog has atypical Addison’s. That’s when your dog isn't producing cortisol, which is the essential stress hormone.

Atypical Addison's disease in dogs (also called hypoadrenocorticism) is a disease of the adrenal glands. But the good news is that both types of Addison’s are very treatable when diagnosed early.

Let's look into this further by starting with the adrenal glands.

What Are The Adrenal Glands?

The adrenal glands are two small glands next to the kidneys that produce corticosteroid hormones that regulate water retention, blood pressure and potassium levels that affect many bodily functions.  

Two types of corticosteroid hormones are: 

  • Glucocorticoids (such as cortisol): This is the stress hormone that affects protein, sugar and fat metabolism used in “fight or flight” situations.
  • Mineralocorticoids (such as aldosterone): These regulate sodium and potassium, also known as electrolytes, that create chemical reactions to aid the transfer of waste and nutrients between cells.

If these hormones aren’t being produced, there can be serious issues. 

What Is Atypical Addison's Disease In Dogs?

In atypical Addison’s, the adrenal glands still produce mineralocorticoids that control sodium and potassium. This means your dog’s electrolyte levels will be normal. But the adrenals don't produce adequate glucocorticoid (cortisol) to deal with stress or in flight or fight situations. 

If your dog is having ongoing trouble managing stress, you will notice these behaviors.

Signs Of A Stress Response In Dogs

  • Compulsive behavior like licking or scratching
  • Visible anxiety like pacing
  • Positive or negative interactions with other dogs
  • Over-excitement when greeting you

Atypical Addison’s can seem like other illnesses so you don't want to ignore the following signs either. 

Symptoms Of Atypical Addison's Disease In Dogs 

  • Excessive drinking and urination
  • Weak pulse and heart rate
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Shivering or shaking
  • Dehydration 
  • Weakness in back legs
  • Shock including low blood pressure, cold limbs, collapse

So if you or your vet suspect atypical Addison's, your vet can do a hormone test … known as a ACTH (adrenocorticotropic) stimulation test. ACTH is the hormone that stimulates the adrenals to produce cortisol. If your dog has a problem producing cortisol, this test will show a decreased level of cortisol both before and after an injection of ACTH.

But you should also be aware of similar signs that lead to a typical Addison's diagnosis. 

Symptoms Of Addison's Disease In Dogs

Addison's, with both cortisol and electrolyte irregularities, is diagnosed through another blood test that shows an electrolyte imbalance. Then these other symptoms start to make sense:

  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in vomit or diarrhea
  • Weight loss or difficulty putting on weight 
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty coping with stress 
  • Drinking/urinating too much
  • Abnormal heart rhythm and slow heart rate (from high potassium)
  • Very low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)

These signs are typical of many illnesses and in the case of Addison’s, they can be intermittent. This led to Addison’s being nicknamed the "Great Pretender.” But when a dog has an Addison crisis that involves collapse in shock from not having the hormones to process stressors, they point directly to this illness.  

Causes Of Addison’s In Dogs

An autoimmune response can lead to destruction of adrenal tissue and lead to both types of Addison's disease. The adrenal glands may also be damaged by trauma, infection or cancer but this isn’t as common. Addison’s is also caused if there’s been long-term steroid treatment and it’s suddenly stopped. Atypical Addison's, also known as secondary Addison's, can result from a tumor or a problem with the pituitary gland that regulates hormones like cortisol.

Any dog regardless of age or breed can develop Addison's Disease however the condition is most often seen in young to middle-aged female dogs, and the following breeds: 

  • Leonbergers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Portuguese Water Dogs
  • Bearded Collies
  • Standard Poodles
  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Great Danes
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers
  • Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers

Treatment Of Atypical Addison’s Disease In Dogs

Unfortunately, once the adrenal tissue is damaged, your dog will need replacement hormone therapy. But your dog does not need steroid treatment … like prednisone. That will only suppress his symptoms and does nothing to replace the missing hormones. 

If you've confirmed that your dog has atypical Addison’s, he needs cortisol. And some dogs only need cortisol treatment in times of stress. You can review your dog's lifestyle and determine when that might be … perhaps when traveling or if boarding is required. Or during times when fireworks or thunderstorms are a possibility. 

But … you want to minimize the use of cortisol because there are side effects from overuse … so the less you need to use it, the better.

Here's what you might see if your dog gets too much cortisol:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Increased hunger
  • Panting
  • Lethargy or loss of energy
  • Increase or worsening of skin infections
  • Rare cases of vomiting or nausea 

Once you're managing atypical Addison's disease in your dog, you can integrate the following steps along with regular testing. And if your dog doesn't have Addison's, these also work well as preventive measures to build overall good health.

Prevention Of Addison’s Disease In Dogs

A raw, whole food diet is the best way to support a dog with Addison’s or to help prevent it. The addition of probiotics can improve any dog's diet, whether home-prepared, raw, cooked, canned, frozen or packaged.  Here are other things you can do.

1. Ensure Adequate Amounts Of Calcium And Vitamin D

Your dog may lose bone density, so you need to maintain your dog’s calcium and vitamin D levels with foods like green vegetables such as kale and broccoli, sardines, beans and almonds. 

2. Feed An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

By feeding your dog a whole food diet, you'll be able to eliminate a lot of inflammatory processed foods. You want to feed him:

  • Leafy greens
  • Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
  • Wild-caught fish (such as salmon, mackerel or sardines that provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Meats and poultry that are grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic 
  • Sea vegetables like kelp and seaweed (high in iodine to support thyroid health)
  • Celtic or Himalayan sea salt
  • High-fiber foods like berries
  • Probiotic and prebiotic foods like garlic, mushrooms, sauerkraut and kefir
  • Herbs and spices like ginger, turmeric, parsley

RELATED: More anti-inflammatory foods for dogs ...

3. Monitor Your Dog’s Stress, Exercise And Sleep

Your dog needs exercise but he also needs rest. If he's a really active dog then it's up to you to make sure he gets time out to relax. 

4. Supplements To Support Your Dog’s Stress Response

These supplements support the immune system and can minimize stress:

  • Medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi and cordyceps
  • Adaptogen herbs like ashwagandha, holy basil and astragalus
  • Ginseng
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

RELATED: How to get started with a raw diet …

Once you've determined that your dog has atypical Addison's disease and you've established a treatment protocol, he can live a long and fulfilling life. You want to have him tested at least twice a year to ensure his hormone levels are balanced. Then just feed him a healthy, whole food diet and you should have a happy, active dog who can continue to enjoy all the things he enjoyed pre-Addison’s.

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© 2024, Four Leaf Rover - The content on this website is not meant to replace veterinary advice. Please support the hard working holistic vets who make this information possible. To find a holistic or homeopathic vet near you or to find one who will do phone consultations, visit The Academy Of Veterinary Homeopathy.