Addison’s disease is a rare, potentially life-threatening condition of your cat’s adrenal glands. Cats of any age, sex or breed can get Addison’s, but it’s more likely in middle-aged cats.
Addison’s, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, happens when your cat’s adrenal glands are damaged and don’t produce enough steroid hormone. Steroid hormones play essential roles in all animals’ bodies. In the early stages of Addison’s disease, the condition is very hard to recognise because the symptoms are vague, intermittent and can be mistaken for other illnesses. Addison’s can’t be cured, but it can be treated successfully for life. Unfortunately, if the condition isn’t identified and effectively controlled, it can lead to an emergency called an ‘Addisonian crisis’, and even death.
What is Addison’s disease in cats?
Addison’s is a disease of the adrenal glands. These are two small structures in your cat’s tummy near their kidneys. The adrenal glands produce two steroid hormones: cortisol and aldosterone. Your cat depends on these hormones for many essential functions in their body. The symptoms of Addison’s develop when levels of these hormones in your cat’s bloodstream fall to abnormally low levels.
How does Addison’s disease develop?
⦁ Your cat’s adrenal glands get damaged
⦁ Cortisol and aldosterone levels fall to dangerously low levels
⦁ Many of your cat’s cells and body systems stop working properly
⦁ Vague signs of illness develop
⦁ Vital organs such as heart and kidneys may fail if the condition is not recognised and treated
The adrenal glands can be damaged by the body’s own defence cells. Sometimes the body stops recognising its own tissues and attacks them. This is called an autoimmune disease and it’s the most common cause of Addison’s disease in cats. We don’t know for certain why this happens. It may be caused by a faulty gene.
Symptoms of Addison’s disease in cats
Symptoms of Addison’s in cats are vague in the early stages. They may happen on and off over many months.
- Poor appetite
- Weakness and low energy (lethargy)
- Weight loss
- Drinking more and urinating (peeing) more
- “Just not right”
The main symptom of an Addisonian crisis is collapse.
Other symptoms of an Addisonian crisis include:
- Abdominal pain
- Pale gums
- Slow heartbeat and breathing
- Cold feet and ears
- Loss of consciousness
If your cat has collapsed, call your nearest vet practice as soon as possible.
Are some cats more at risk of Addison’s than others?
Addison’s disease in cats is extremely rare. Only around 50 cases have been officially recorded since it was first documented in cats in 1983.
Cats of any age, sex or breed can get Addison’s Disease. It’s most likely to happen in middle age.
Addison’s Disease is not dangerous to human family members or to other pets in the house.
How do vets diagnose Addison’s disease in cats?
Addison’s disease is difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the symptoms come and go and can be confused with much more common illnesses.
Vets diagnose Addison’s disease through:
- urine tests
- blood tests
- general blood tests: checking liver, kidneys, electrolytes (sodium and potassium) and inflammation
- specific blood tests: to check your cat’s steroid hormone production
- an ECG to check your cat’s heart
- an ultrasound scan of your cat’s tummy to examine the adrenal glands in more detail
Addison’s disease is often only identified when your cat is admitted to a vet practice or hospital because of severe dehydration or collapse.
Vet treatment for Addison’s disease in cats
There’s no cure for Addison’s disease.
Once your cat has been diagnosed, they will need treatment for the rest of their lives.
Emergency treatment for acute (sudden) Addison’s disease
- Fluids given directly into your cat’s veins for rehydration
- Correction of sodium and potassium levels in the bloodstream
- Emergency steroid injections to replace essential cortisol
Longterm treatment for Addison’s disease
- monthly injections to replace the hormone aldosterone
- daily tablets to replace the hormone cortisol (see footnote)
Cortisol is a hormone that helps your cat’s body deal with stress. Without this hormone, anything that stresses your cat may trigger more severe symptoms. This can be overcome by increasing your cat’s daily dose of steroid tablets during stressful events, such as family gatherings, holidays or if they get another illness.
Once stabilised on treatment, your cat will continue to need regular checkups with a vet, including blood tests once or twice a year.
The good news is that most cats respond well to treatment and go on to live full and happy lives.
Sadly, some cats respond poorly to treatment, particularly those who have other illnesses at the same time as Addison’s disease. For cats whose Addison’s disease cannot be safely and effectively controlled, it may be kinder to end their lives peacefully through euthanasia.
How to look after a cat with Addison’s disease at home
Addison’s Disease in cats is a serious and complicated disease.
There are no home remedies to treat Addison’s disease.
If your cat has Addison’s disease, they must have.
- prescription medicine from a vet.
- regular check-ups at a vet practice.
Following your vet’s advice will help to ensure your pet can continue their recovery in familiar surroundings at home and reduce the likelihood of expensive vet bills for hospital stays.
Living with a cat who has Addison’s disease
Addison’s cats can’t produce their own cortisol to cope with stress. So even cats on treatment can become unwell if they experience a new or stressful situation. This includes:
- trips to the vets
- going on holiday or into kennels
- visitors in the house
But stressful events can also include things which are maybe not as obvious. For example:
- changes in diet
- changes in routines, including household movements and numbers.
- loss of familiar toys
- other illnesses
Some of these potential stressors can be controlled or avoided altogether by:
- keeping to a suitable diet
- being consistent with times for meals and bed
- avoiding swapping out favourite toys (and keeping a supply of identical ones, just in case)
- Keeping a close eye on your cat’s health and responding promptly to any changes
Often, the most stressful things can’t be prevented or even predicted. This may be unexpected travel or your cat becoming unwell for another reason. In those cases, your cat may need a slightly bigger dose of their daily steroid tablet.
For your cat’s safety, any changes to their regular medication should only be carried out under the supervision and guidance of a vet.
Can Addison’s in cats be prevented?
Addison’s disease is a rare condition. There’s no way to prevent your cat from developing Addison’s disease. However, cats experiencing any of the symptoms listed in this article are far more likely to have something more common, which can be readily treated by owners at home or by a vet.
Tips on how to prevent an Addisonian crisis in cats
If your cat has been diagnosed with Addison’s disease, the priority is to prevent an Addisonian crisis.
Reduce the risk of an Addisonian crisis by:
- minimising stress and change in your cat’s lifestyle, surroundings and routines
- giving them their medication at the correct dose and at the right time every day
- seeing a vet regularly for checkups and advice on medication
- ensuring your cat has regular preventive care, such as vaccinations, worming and flea treatments
- contacting a vet as soon as possible if you notice any changes in your cat’s habits or behaviour
When to worry
When should you be worried about Addison’s disease?
If Addison’s is not effectively controlled, your cat is at risk of a life-threatening Addisonian crisis.
Seek help from your nearest vet practice if your cat is showing the following symptoms:
- abdominal pain
- pale gums
- slow heartbeat
- slow breathing
- cold feet and ears
- loss of consciousness
Call your nearest vet immediately if you think your cat is having an Addisonian crisis
Call us and speak to one of our Joii Vets if:
- you are worried your cat may have Addison’s disease
- you are worried about an upcoming change or event that may stress your Addison’s cat.
- you want to know more about recognising health signs in your cat
- for peace of mind and professional advice
- choosing and sticking to the right food for your cat
- successfully managing the routines in your cat’s life
- advising on holidays and alternative care for cats
- preparing your cat for trips to the vets
- Giving medication to your cat