When the topic of adrenal glands is brought up, people usually think of adrenaline. It’s the hormone that courses through our veins on roller coasters and makes dogs bare their teeth at perceived threats. But the adrenal glands do more than prepare dogs to defend themselves. They produce hormones that regulate many bodily systems necessary for survival.
Here’s what the adrenal glands do in canines and why it’s important to keep them healthy.
How adrenal glands benefit your dog
The adrenal glands secrete a range of hormones that regulate many systems throughout a dog’s body. Here are the primary functions of adrenal glands that keep your dog healthy.
- Fight-or-flight response: When your dog feels threatened, the adrenal glands release two hormones: adrenaline and noradrenaline. They work in tandem to help the body either run away or stay and fight. These hormones trigger a series of physiological responses like faster heart rate, stalled digestion, increased blood flow to the muscles and metabolizing glycogen for energy.
- Stress management: The adrenal glands produce a group of hormones called glucocorticoids. The main hormone in this group is cortisol. Adrenal glands release cortisol in order to manage your dog’s response to stressful situations. Healthy levels of cortisol are associated with reduced stress in the presence of triggers like strangers, other animals and loud noises.
- Metabolic system: Cortisol is also responsible for digesting carbs, fat and protein. In times of stress, cortisol draws from glycogen stores and tells the liver to convert it to glucose. Similarly, cortisol can make fat reserves emit fatty acids, which the liver also converts into a usable form of energy. Cortisol metabolizes macronutrients in response to stress because the body needs energy in order to combat the perceived threat.
- Water retention: Aldosterone is another key hormone produced in the adrenal glands. It encourages the kidneys to hold onto sodium, which allows the body to absorb more water. In other words, this hormone balances the body’s water supply. Aldosterone also retains electrolytes, which are necessary for proper hydration. The hormone aids hydration by helping electrolytes such as sodium and potassium phase through cell walls.
As with any part of the body, adrenal glands are susceptible to diseases that prevent them from properly functioning. One such issue affecting the glands is Addison’s disease. Dogs are diagnosed with Addison’s disease when their adrenal glands don’t produce enough aldosterone or cortisol. Low levels of these hormones may cause metabolism issues or severe dehydration, both of which are fatal in dogs.
The tricky thing about Addison’s disease is that the associated symptoms could easily look like any number of illnesses. Your vet will have to rule out these other illnesses before diagnosing your dog with Addison’s disease.
Any combination of the following symptoms can appear in dogs with this adrenal gland issue:
- Lack of appetite
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Hair loss
- Increased thirst and urination
- Irregular heartbeat
Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent Addison’s disease. The most common treatment option is a daily pill that provides the adrenal glands with adequate hormone levels. Dogs who take replacement hormone medication generally have a good prognosis and can live long, normal lives. Pet parents who observe the signs of Addison’s disease should consult a vet right away because a life-threatening illness could be at stake.
By contrast, Cushing’s disease occurs when the adrenal glands produce too many hormones. The disease usually results from a benign or malignant tumor that grows either on the adrenal glands or pituitary gland. When tumors form on the pituitary gland, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulates the adrenal glands to produce dangerously high levels of cortisol.
Cushing’s disease is often confused with Addison’s disease because they both affect the adrenal glands and share overlapping symptoms. However, Cushing’s disease is associated with additional signs.
Here are some of the many symptoms often seen in dogs with Cushing’s disease:
- Increased appetite
- Increased thirst and urination
- Pot belly due to increased fat
- Recurring skin and bladder infections
- Dark spots on the skin
There’s not much pet parents can do to prevent tumors from growing on the pituitary or adrenal glands. Your vet might recommend surgically removing the tumor, although this procedure tends to be more successful if the tumor is benign. In addition to surgery, dogs can take an oral medication that manages ACTH and cortisol production.
Since the adrenal glands play so many roles, it’s no wonder that diseases of these glands quickly become serious. Adrenal glands are very small, but their importance is hard to overlook. The best thing a pet parent can do to protect their dog’s adrenal glands is schedule a vet appointment as soon as they display any of the above-mentioned symptoms. When you prioritize adrenal gland health, you prioritize your dog’s full-body wellness.