How can I tell if my dog has Addison’s disease?

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Addison’s disease occurs when a dog’s adrenal glands do not function properly. The adrenal glands produce hormones called corticosteroids, which aid in the metabolism of sugar, fat and protein and also regulate electrolyte balance. These functions enable your dog to adapt to stress by burning fuels and preparing for blood loss as a function of the fight or flight mechanism.

Reduced production of glucocorticoids lowers your pet’s ability to deal with stress, metabolize food into energy and manage the immune system. Decreased aldosterone can affect blood pressure, kidney health and the dog’s electrolyte balance.

Addison’s disease can be difficult to diagnose and frequently it is not until a dog is in crisis that the disease is identified. The symptoms can appear much like other disease, general weakness, decreased appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms can include joint pain, hair loss, increased thirst and urination, the appearance of patches of darkened skin, and shivering or muscle tremors.

In order to help your veterinarian diagnose your pet, go to your appointment prepared to give a very thorough history of your dog’s health and when the symptoms started. Your vet will want to run comprehensive lab work to check all of your pet’s metabolic functions, from bloodwork to urinalysis. They will be looking for abnormally high electrolyte levels, increased calcium and liver enzymes, low blood sugar, and an accumulation of urea in the bloodstream, a waste product which is normally excreted through urine.

A comprehensive test for Addison’s disease is called an ACTH stimulation test. ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) is secreted by the pituitary gland and stimulates the adrenal glands to produce corticosteroids. Blood is drawn to measure baseline cortisol, and then an injection of ACTH is given. A period of time after the injection is given another blood sample is drawn and checked for cortisol level. If no increase in cortisol is shown after the injection, the diagnosis is confirmed.

This does not mean that you will lose your pet. You can work with your veterinarian to provide proper treatment, and most dogs respond well and are able to live out happy lives.

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