the gland scheme of things - addison's disease

the gland scheme of things - addison's disease
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on May 24 2011

As we discussed in our blog post about Cushing’s disease, problems can occur when there is an overproduction of the steroid hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and is released in response to stress to help our bodies cope. We all need cortisol to live, but too much cortisol is a bad thing.

Too little cortisol: Addison’s disease

The opposite of hyperadrenocorticism, or Cushing’s disease, is called hypoadrenocorticism, or Addison’s disease. In Addison’s disease, for reasons we really don’t fully understand, the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol. In some cases, the affected dog has been treated with medications that suppress the production of cortisol, like some of the drugs used to treat Cushing’s disease. In these cases, there is a clear reason for the cortisol deficiency, but in most cases, we just don’t know.


Affected dogs are usually young (less than five years old), and there is a breed predisposition in Standard Poodles and Bearded Collies. Clinical signs can be quite vague and include depression, listlessness, vomiting, and diarrhea. Symptoms of an “Addisonian crisis” can be life-threatening. Decreased blood pressure and blood sugar, low heart rates and heart arrhythmias can all occur during an acute crisis.

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Sometimes diagnosis of Addison’s disease is straightforward. Pets often present with “classic” signs of Addison’s disease. But sometimes, the answer is not that easy. Other diseases, like whipworm infestations or kidney disease, mimic the clinical signs and blood work results of Addison’s disease. Patients can also present with atypical Addison’s disease, lacking the clear cut clinical signs of the disease. Routine blood work will be done first and may be highly suspicious for Addison’s disease. Your veterinarian will then likely measure your pet’s cortisol level and perform a timed blood test to see how your pet’s adrenal glands respond to stimulation.


If your pet is in the midst of an Addisonian crisis, hospitalization will be required to stabilize him while a diagnosis is being made. There are currently two treatment options for Addison’s disease in dogs. The first is an oral medication given twice a day. The second option is an injection given about once a month (every 25-28 days) by your veterinarian. Some dogs will also require a low dose of oral prednisone with the injection. Having pet insurance from Petplan can help manage the cost of medication your pet will need to help battle Addison’s disease.

If your dog is diagnosed with Addison’s disease, you and your veterinarian will sit down to discuss the best treatment for your pet. Each treatment has advantages and disadvantages, and each veterinarian will have their own preferred treatment.

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