The adrenal glands are two very important glands that are located next to the kidneys. Everyone has them and they perform a variety of functions critical to maintaining a healthy life. Most importantly these glands produce steroid hormones called cortisol and aldosterone. Steroid hormones are necessary for responding to stresses, regulating blood sugar, controlling the immune system, regulating electrolyte balance and helping with metabolism. Steroid hormones are responsible for the same critical functions in your dog.
Some dogs develop a disease called Addison’s or hypoadrenocorticism that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough steroid hormone. Addison’s disease can be caused by trauma, infection of the adrenal glands, various autoimmune diseases or disease affecting the pituitary gland (which helps to control the adrenal glands). Addison’s disease can also develop from the sudden cessation of long-term oral steroids. It is important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions regarding tapering your pet’s dosage of oral steroids in order to avoid the development of iatrogenic hypoadrenocorticism.
Female dogs between the ages of 4-5 years old are most commonly affected, although any age dog as well cats in rare cases can develop Addison’s disease. Symptoms of Addison’s disease can be very vague and can include vomiting, weight loss, diarrhea, lethargy, increased drinking and urinating or episodes of uncontrollable shaking. In some cases a dog with Addison’s disease may experience what is known as an Addisonian Crisis. Your dog may appear very weak and collapse suddenly. This is sometimes paired with acute vomiting, diarrhea, and shaking. An Addisonian Crisis is a medical emergency that occurs when blood sugar levels plummet and potassium levels reach dangerously high levels, disrupting the normal beat of the heart. Treating this crisis requires quick action from your veterinarian and immediate supportive care including IV fluids, electrolytes, anti-nausea and anti-diarrheal medications.
Diagnosing Addison’s disease is usually done with an ACTH-Stimulation test. This involves dropping your pet off at the veterinary clinic for several hours. Blood will be drawn upon your pet’s arrival and they will then receive an injection of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH is a hormone that is produced by the pituitary gland to stimulate the release of cortisol. Another blood sample is taken 2 hours after the injection to determine how the adrenal glands have responded. Complete blood work should also be done on any dog being tested for Addison’s disease.
Treatment of Addison’s disease is typically oral steroids given on a daily basis, or injectable medications given at regular intervals for life. Routine checkups and ACTH-Stimulation tests will be necessary throughout your pet’s life to ensure that they are receiving the correct dosage of medication. Aside from frequent visits to the veterinarian many dogs diagnosed with Addison’s disease live happy, quality lives once they are stabilized.