Addison’s Part 1: What are the symptoms, and how is it diagnosed?

Posted by MyDogDoc on

  • Addison’s Disease is most commonly seen in middle-aged females and in certain breeds such as Standard Poodles, West Highland White Terriers, Bearded Collies and Great Danes.

  • Symptoms are usually very vague, with low energy, lack of appetite and occasional vomiting and diarrhoea being the most common signs seen.

  • Severe cases can appear suddenly and be an emergency. This is known as an Addisonian crisis

  • Diagnosis is not always easy as the signs are so vague. Your vet will want to take a thorough history, perform a full clinical examination and then recommend a number of tests to help diagnose Addison’s and exclude other diseases.

Addison’s or Hypoadrenocorticism is a disease which arises when the body, specifically, the adrenal gland, stops producing normal amounts of the steroid hormones called cortisol and aldosterone. These hormones are needed by all the cells within the body in order to remain healthy. When a dog doesn’t produce enough of these hormones, it can become unwell and if these hormone levels become very low, it can be a life-threatening emergency.

In this article we will look in more detail at the dogs which are more susceptible to the disease, the symptoms to look out for and how the disease is diagnosed.


Whilst Addison’s can be seen in any dog and at any age, it tends to be seen more frequently in:

  • Young - middle aged, females

  • Standard Poodles, West Highland White Terriers, Great Danes, Bearded Collies, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Portuguese Water Dogs


As cortisol and aldosterone have such a wide-ranging effect on bodily functions, the symptoms can be very varied.

The most common signs are usually:

  • Low energy and weakness

  • Lack of appetite (anorexia)

  • Vomiting (intermittently)

  • Diarrhoea (intermittently)

  • Weight loss

  • Shaking

Other signs include:

  • Sore tummy

  • Increased thirst

  • Increased urination

  • Alopecia (hair loss)

  • Cool to touch/low body temperature

  • Slow heart rate

  • Dehydration

The symptoms are often vague, come and go and vary in intensity. Sometimes the only symptom can be just that your dog is “not quite right”.

In severe cases, some dogs develop ‘shock-like’ symptoms and collapse. These signs come on suddenly and can become an emergency. This is known as an ‘Addisonian Crisis’.

Signs include:

  • Severe vomiting

  • Severe diarrhoea

  • Collapse

  • Slow heart rate

  • Coma (unresponsive)

If your dog is showing these signs, they may be in Addisonian Crisis and need to be seen by an emergency vet.


Diagnosis is not always easy. Many signs of Addison’s eg. vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss and lack of appetite, are symptoms of lots of other, more common, diseases too so your vet will want to take a detailed history, and preform a full clinical examination and then recommend a number of tests to help diagnose Addison’s and rule out other diseases. These tests may include:

A full general-health blood test which is usually performed to check liver, kidney and pancreas function and also evaluate blood sugar levels and salt (electrolyte) levels.

  • A complete blood count (CBC) – to check your dog’s red and white blood cells.

  • A urine test – to check for any infections or other diseases and to ensure your dog’s kidneys are concentrating urine properly.

  • An ACTH Stimulation Test – this tests the working of the adrenal glands by injecting the hormone ACTH. The level of cortisol in the blood is tested before and after injection of the ACTH hormone and this will give an indication of whether the adrenal gland is functioning normally.

In addition, your vet may recommend

  • ECG – to check for any abnormal heart rhythm and look for signs of heart disease

  • Ultrasound or CT – to evaluate the size and structure of the adrenal glands, especially if a tumour is suspected as the cause.

As always, if you have any questions, or would like to discuss your dog’s diagnosis of Addison’s, the vets at MyDogDoc are happy to help.

Next Up: Addison’s Part 2: My dog has been diagnosed with Addison’s, what is the treatments available?

Adrenal Adrenal Gland Adrenal tissue Aldosterone Dog Endocrine Glucocorticoid Health Hypoadrenocorticism Mineralocorticoid Pituitary Pituitary gland Senior

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