[Updated October 11, 2017]
While treatment of Addison’s disease focuses on prescription drugs and electrolyte tests, holistic veterinarians add various support therapies to help their patients.
Nutrition is the cornerstone of every holistic therapy, and while diet cannot cure Addison’s disease, foods made of poor-quality ingredients or diets that lead to nutritional deficiencies are a significant source of stress, and additional stress is just what Addison’s dogs don’t need. Because wheat, corn, and soy are problem ingredients for some dogs, many holistic veterinarians recommend avoiding them. Some tell their clients to avoid grains altogether. In general, foods made from high-quality animal-source ingredients that are easy to digest work best, but because individual responses vary, caregivers should observe their pets’ responses and avoid ingredients that seem to trigger symptoms.
Veterinarians used to recommend adding salt to the food of dogs with Addison’s, but the benefits of the practice are not supported by research. Addison’s dogs do not require additional salt, which may lead to excessive thirst and urination.
The addition of probiotics can improve any dog’s diet, whether home-prepared, raw, cooked, canned, frozen, or packaged. Digestive enzyme powders are a sensible addition for any dog with digestive problems. These products are widely available in pet supply stores and online. Follow label directions.
Prior to the development of synthetic adrenal hormones, Addison’s disease was treated with glandular extracts. Adrenal cortical extracts given orally or injected are still available, though because synthetic versions have so thoroughly replaced them, few veterinarians are familiar with their use. Those who are often prescribe Standard Process Canine Adrenal Support, a powdered supplement that contains animal tissue extracts and other ingredients that support the adrenals. “The goal of Canine Adrenal Support,” explains the manufacturer, “is to help maintain the adrenal glands’ response to metabolic demand, normalize adrenal function, support the body’s ability to handle stress, and promote the adrenal glands’ ability to rebuild and regenerate.” Adrenal glandulars may reduce the amount of medication needed or just help the dog feel better, but their use requires close supervision from a knowledgeable veterinarian.
Some medicinal herbs are known for their effect on the adrenals. Six years ago, the New Zealand Veterinary Journal published a case report by R.H. Jerrett, et al, that examined the effect of whole, natural liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra – what we would call licorice) on a dog with Addison’s. The 4-year-old neutered male subject had persistently high potassium levels despite receiving a moderate dose of fludrocortisone. “Financial considerations and the potential for adverse effects made increasing the dose of fludrocortisone undesirable, so liquorice was added to the dog’s diet in hopes that the hyperkalemia would be corrected,” wrote the researchers. The dog’s potassium levels returned to normal, where they remained for the duration of the 14-month study. “Given these very preliminary findings,” the authors concluded, “we believe it is possible that liquorice may, in future, prove to be a useful adjunct in the management of canine hypoadrenocorticism.” It may also prolong the effect of corticosteroids.
Licorice is an adaptogenic herb, a category that describes medicinal plants that help the body deal with stress. Relaxing or sedative herbs help Addison’s patients, too. Oatstraw (Avena sativa) and German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) brewed as teas separately or together can be added to food or even applied to the skin and coat to help dogs feel relaxed. Other herbs may be beneficial for gastrointestinal upset and liver support.
Aromatherapy’s essential oils are more concentrated than herbal teas, so they should be diluted with vegetable oils before being applied to the skin, coat, or paw pads. For details see “Aromatherapy for Dogs,” WDJ 2004.
In her book, Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, Kristen Leigh Bell describes her Calm Canine Essential Oil Blend, made with ½ fluid ounce (1 tablespoon) hazelnut, sweet almond, or other vegetable oil, 3 drops valerian (Valeriana officinalis), 2 drops vetiver (Vetivera zizanoides), 4 drops petitgrain (Citrus auranthium leaf), 3 drops sweet marjoram (Origanum morjorana), and 2 drops sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) essential oils. Combine and store in a dark glass bottle.
“This is my standard calming blend,” says Bell, “which has had a very impressive track record for dogs in numerous situations. The calming effect ranges from ‘taking the edge off’ to soothing a dog to the point where she gets very mellow and takes a nap.”
For best results use therapeutic-quality essential oils. Several pet aromatherapy companies make their own calming sprays and oils.
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland, is sold as an over-the-counter supplement to help people with insomnia sleep through the night.
Veterinarians have found that when given to dogs, melatonin helps manage separation anxiety and fearful reactions to thunder, fireworks, and other noises. In other words, it helps reduce stress levels.
Melatonin is recommended (one 3-mg tablet or capsule for a medium-sized dog) 20 to 30 minutes before stressful events. Although some experts warn that melatonin may interfere with corticosteroids and other medications, others consider the benefits of occasional use to outweigh the risks. Consult your veterinarian as to whether melatonin is appropriate for your dog.
Calming pheromones provide stress relief, too. The product Comfort Zone contains “dog appeasing pheromone” (DAP), which may significantly reduce destructive behavior, fears, and phobias and help some dogs deal with stressful environments. Comfort Zone is sold in pet supply stores as a spray or with a plug-in electric diffuser.
Other techniques that help Addison’s dogs include massage, the playing of soft classical music, and energy therapies such as Reiki.