Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

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immune Addison


What is Addison’s disease?

Addison’s, also called hyperadrenocorticism, can be a primary autoimmune disease that attacks the adrenal glands.  It can also be secondary to pituitary disease or steroid therapy.  Whatever the root cause it makes the adrenal gland to reduce production of cortisol, a natural steroid essential to life. 

 How do I know my dog has Addison’s disease?

Addison’s mostly affects young to middle-aged females but can occur in either gender or at any age.   Affected dogs may exhibit various types of gastrointestinal distress, lethargy, neuromuscular effects, low body temperature, low heart rate, or hindquarter pain.  The disease is easily mistaken for a variety of other conditions including infections, poisoning, seizure disorders and pancreatic tumors.  Addison’s tends to be underdiagnosed in dogs, so ruling-out other potential causes of its symptoms is important.  Positive diagnosis is made with an ACTH stimulation test.

 What does it mean for my dog if it has Addison’s disease?

The disease can be treated with medication, but dogs affected with Addison’s require life-long treatment which can be costly.  Long term care requires limiting stress.

 How common is Addison’s disease in Aussies?

It is rare.  However, breeders should approach all chronic autoimmune disease as a single health concern; different types of autoimmune disease frequently occur in affected families.

 Is Addison’s disease inherited? 

Breeders will also want to know if the disease is primary as it can also be caused by pituitary tumors, which probably are not, and by administration of steroid medications.  If the disease is primary, it is autoimmune and inherited.   All autoimmune diseases are genetically predisposed:  The dog must have the genes to get the disease, but not every dog with the genes will become ill.

 Is there a screening or DNA test for Addison’s Disease?

Not at this time.

 What does Addison’s Disease mean for my breeding program.

Breeders should approach each autoimmune disease as part of an overall health and breeding issue because different autoimmune diseases frequently occur in an affected family.  See Autoimmune Disease & Breeding.

Are Addison’s Disease and Cushing’s Disease the same thing?

No, they are two different diseases though they both impact the adrenal gland.  Addison’s Disease is also called hypoadrenocorticism; Cushing’s Disease, is also known as hyperadrenocorticism.  Hyper = too much; hypo = too little.

Addison’s causes the adrenal gland produces too little cortisol.  Cushing’s, which some think may also be immune-mediated, does the reverse, causing excessive cortisol production.  Most cases of Cushing’s are caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary; the balance stem from adrenal gland tumors.  About half of those tumors are malignant.

Both diseases can be inherited, though not in all cases.  However, it would be short-sighted to assume non-hereditary causes for either disease unless there is conclusive evidence after diagnostic testing.   Both diseases occur in Aussies at low frequency.