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Jennifer Dempsey

Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives.
As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

Posts by Jennifer Dempsey

Kidney Disease in Dogs: Know The Early Signs

Kidney Disease in Dogs: Know The Early Signs

In this article we will cover everything pet parents should know about kidney disease in dogs. Whenever something is wrong with a vital organ, such as the kidney, it's undoubtedly a scary situation. With that said, by being able to recognize the early signs of organ damage, pet parents can take the appropriate steps in getting their dog the necessary medical treatment.

Additionally, there are several preventative measures that dog owners should implement in order to make sure their dog's kidneys stay as healthy as possible. Let's get started!

kidney disease in dogs

Important Facts About the Kidneys

Before we dive into kidney disease, let's first discuss the importance of these vital organs. In order to understand the necessity for preventing any associated ailments, it is essential that pet owners know exactly what is at risk.

Understanding Kidney Function

The kidney is actually made up of millions of microscopic processing units called nephrons. The nephrons are responsible for separating chemicals into ones that are to be discarded and ones that are reabsorbed back into the bloodstream. Urine is produced when the discarded chemicals are dissolved in water.

Removing Toxins

The kidneys are key players in removing waste, toxins, and extra fluids from the body. Waste and excess fluids are stored in the dog's bladder until they urinate. However, if the kidneys aren't fully functioning (if there is not enough blood flow through the kidneys or enough functioning nephrons), the accumulated toxins are not properly released and continues to build up in the dog's body.

Unfortunately, the large amount of toxins can cause irreversible harm for your four-legged friend. Furthermore, dogs are exposed to toxicities every single day. Therefore, if the kidneys are unable to rid the body of these toxins, they can accumulate quite quickly. 

Blood Pressure Control

Additionally, the kidneys help to control the dog's blood pressure. In fact, the kidneys are able to increase or decrease the blood pressure by controlling fluid levels and producing hormones that cause blood vessels to contract. The kidneys can make these necessary alterations depending on what the dog's body needs at any given time. 

Therefore, if the kidneys aren't functioning properly, hypertension (high blood pressure) can result and lead to further kidney damage. Blood pressure should be monitored in kidney failure patients. Medications can be initiated to help control the dog’s blood pressure.

Red Blood Cell Production

The kidneys also create a hormone called erythropoietin that supports the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells are essential to the body for a multitude of reasons. Most people know that red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the dog's body, but that's not all they do. Red blood cells are also necessary for producing energy that your dog needs in order to carry about their day-to-day activities.

The patient’s red blood cell counts are monitored during chronic kidney disease. If the red blood cells drop too low, erythropoietin injections can be given to help raise their levels.

Regulating pH Levels

Furthermore, the kidneys help the body regulate pH levels. As cells break down in your dog's body, the cells turn into acids. Certain food can cause cellular alterations, resulting in the acid levels being either too high or too low. Luckily, the kidneys help to regulate these levels by removing or adding acids of the body, depending on what is best going to benefit your pup.

Protein Conservation

Nephrons use a filtration type system to conserve protein while discarding harmful wastes. If the nephron becomes damaged, then protein can be lost in the urine. Proteinuria is monitored during kidney disease is used in staging kidney failure.

Water Conservation

The kidneys conserve water during times of dehydration. They also need to remove any excess fluid if you drink too much water, in order to prevent dilution inside the bloodstream. Pets with kidney disease are not able to concentrate urine, so they need to drink more water to process the waste products. 

Electrolyte Balance

The kidneys also play a major role in controlling electrolyte balances in the bloodstream. Poorly functioning kidneys can lose their ability to conserve potassium. If the potassium levels drop in the body, your pet may exhibit weakness. Potassium supplements are commonly needed in kidney failure.

There is also an important balance between calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Phosphorus levels begin to rise with kidney dysfunction, which requires monitoring, therapeutic diets and possibly additional medications to keep the levels in an acceptable range. 

Vitamin D

Finally, vitamin D is necessary for the dog's bones to be able to absorb phosphorus and calcium. The kidneys produce an active form of vitamin D and help keep the bones strong and healthy. If the kidneys are suffering, it can cause subsequent damage to the rest of the body. 

As you can see, it is incredibly important that your dog's kidneys are fully functioning. They are truly essential to the dog's health, well-being, and quality of life. 

Where Are the Kidneys Located

Like people, dogs have two kidneys. They are located in the dorsal abdomen alongside the lumbar spine region.

where are the kidneys located

What is Kidney Disease (Renal Disease)

Kidney disease (also known as renal disease) refers to any condition that causes damage to the kidneys. In some cases, dogs will show early signs of kidney damage and if their owners recognize the symptoms, treatment is available. It may also be possible to reverse acute damage with proper medical intervention. However, unfortunately, most cases of kidney disease aren’t diagnosed until the dog has lost up to 75% of their kidney function. Often times, it is far too late as substantial damage has been done. 

With that being said, early detection of kidney damage can truly make a world of difference for your dog. It can quite literally be the difference between life and death. Furthermore, routine check-ups and preventative measures are two things that all pet owners must incorporate into their fur baby’s life (more on that in a moment). 

Kidney Disease vs Kidney Failure

We also want to mention that you may hear the terms kidney disease and kidney failure used interchangeably. It is important for pet owners to understand that there are four stages of the disease yet many refer to stage one and two as kidney disease and stage three and four as kidney failure. Kidney disease (or early stages of kidney damage) can possibly be reversed, whereas, progressed damage (kidney failure) is often irreversible.

Define Renal

The last important thing to note before we dive into more specifics is the medical term, renal. Renal is defined as relating to, affecting, involving, or located in the region of the kidneys. Therefore, renal disease or renal failure are two other ways veterinarians may talk about kidney disease or kidney failure.

Types of Kidney Disease

Now, let's get into kidney disease. First, your veterinarian will likely make a positive diagnosis of kidney disease based on the blood testing and urinalysis. Then, they will determine the type of disease. There are two broad ’types’ of kidney disease that dog owners should be aware of: acute kidney disease (AKD) and chronic kidney disease (CKD). Both types have their own set of causes, symptoms, treatment options, and prognosis.

Acute Kidney Disease in Dogs (AKD)

Acute kidney disease develops when there is a sudden decline in kidney function. It can occur within a matter of days without much (or any) warning. The most common cause of acute kidney disease in dogs is the ingestion of toxins such as antifreeze, different poisons, or medications intended for humans.

Additionally, acute kidney disease in dogs can develop from infections and urinary obstruction, decreased blood flow, as well as decreased levels of oxygen being delivered to the vital organs.

Unlike chronic kidney disease, acute kidney disease typically has a root cause that veterinarians are able to pinpoint. For this reason, dogs with AKD should begin treatment immediately and, in many cases, veterinarians can help ensure that the damage doesn’t cause permanent harm to the kidneys.

Of course, every case is different and we encourage our readers to not delay if they (for absolutely any reason) believe their dog may be suffering from kidney damage.

Chronic Kidney Disease in Dogs (CKD)

The second type of kidney disease in dogs is referred to as chronic kidney disease (CKD). The term chronic refers to a condition that slowly develops over an extended period of time. Additionally, chronic can also refer to diseases that are constantly recurring. For this reason, the underlying cause of the condition’s development can be difficult to diagnose, even with extensive testing. In many cases of chronic kidney disease, genetics play a strong role in its development.

What is Chronic Renal Insufficiency or Renal Failure

Chronic renal insufficiency or chronic renal failure are two additional ways that you may hear your veterinarian describe chronic kidney disease in dogs. We feel that it is important that pet owners are familiar with all of the ways that their dog’s condition may be talked about.

We likely don't have to tell you that any disease, particularly those associated with vital organs, can be incredibly scary. Knowing as much as you can about the condition will help remove many uncertainties and ‘unknowns’ that only prove to add additional stress for both the dog and dog owner.

What Causes Kidney Disease in Dogs

Several factors can ultimately contribute to the development of kidney disease in dogs. In some cases, kidney damage is (for the most part) unavoidable. However, there are other circumstances that are, in large part, able to be prevented.

By understanding the causes behind the condition, pet owners can ensure that they are taking the appropriate steps to avoid harm to their furry companion’s vital organs.


Countless studies show a strong correlation between conditions like kidney disease and age. In fact, in dogs, the probability of kidney issues significantly increases after the age of seven. Chronic kidney disease essentially occurs with age when nephrons die off as a result of wear and tear. Sadly, scientists have yet to formulate a pill that can completely stop time (fingers crossed it’s in the works). However, there are certain things dog owners can do to ensure the health of their aging pup’s kidneys. We promise we’ll get to all of that information soon!

Breed Predisposition

As strange as it may sound, extensive research proves that some breeds are at a genetic predisposition for developing kidney disease. These breeds include:

  • Samoyed

  • Bull Terrier

  • Cairn Terrier

  • German Shepherd

  • English Cocker Spaniel

what breeds are prone to kidney disease in dogs

Additionally, the following breeds are known to have an increased risk of abnormal kidney development, also known as renal dysplasia. This congenital kidney abnormality can often result in damage to the vital organ. These breeds include: 

  • Shih Tzu

  • Lhasa apso

  • Golden retriever

  • Norwegian elkhound

  • Chow chow

  • Standard Poodle

  • Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier

  • Alaskan malamute

  • Miniature Schnauzer

  • Dutch Kooiker

With that said, just because you have one of the aforementioned breeds doesn’t mean they will certainly have kidney issues. In the same breath, just because your dog is of a different breed doesn’t mean they aren’t at some risk, even if it's small. 

However, it is important for all dog owners to be aware of any diseases associated with their dog’s genetics. Keeping an eye out for diseases before they develop is an imperative part of early detection.

Medication Toxicity

Additionally, experts have also drawn correlations between both kidney and liver damage to the high levels of toxins found in conventional medications. Now, we certainly aren't negating the absolute importance of conventional medications. Who knows where we would be without such scientific advancements. However, we are stating that the rate that many medications are prescribed is at an incredibly high and dangerous level. Always follow the recommended dosing and never give any over-the-counter medications without first consulting a veterinarian. 

Medications that are known to negatively affect the kidneys are being administered every single day. From yearly vaccinations to heartworm preventatives to flea and tick treatment, your dog's body isn't equipped to flush out such a large amount of toxicity. As the toxins build-up, the kidneys (and liver) are inevitably affected. We recommend consulting with a holistic veterinarian regarding appropriate medications for your pet. 


Diet, diet, diet! We cannot stress the importance of diet enough. It can truly alter your dog's quality of life in more ways than you may imagine. When it comes to the kidneys, diet also comes into play. In fact, countless studies show correlations between poor quality, processed foods and kidney damage in dogs. Dog foods that are higher in phosphorus and protein can be harmful to the kidney and increase the progression of renal disease. 

Whenever possible, it is imperative that pet owners make sure their four-legged friends are being fed the best, well-balanced diets available. Your dog's food source is linked to countless ailments that can easily be avoided just by making sure you do your homework before purchasing your pet's next meal.

Environmental Toxins

Additionally, environmental toxins are often directly tied to both acute and chronic kidney disease. These toxins include everything from anti-freeze and household cleaners to herbicides and pesticides. How environmental toxins affect the dog will ultimately dictate whether their kidney disease is acute or chronic in onset. For instance, if poisoning occurs, renal function will decrease rapidly and symptoms will develop quickly and severely. On the other hand, if the dog is continuously exposed to an environmental toxin such as mold, chronic damage can occur over an extended period of time.  

We understand that not all environmental toxins can be entirely avoided. It's an unfortunate fact about the world we live in. However, certain environmental toxins can certainly be limited and/ or managed. 

antifreeze can cause kidney disease in dogs

Additional Causes of Kidney Disease

While the aforementioned causes are often most prevalent, they aren't the only ways that the kidneys can be damaged. Kidney damage (and therefore, kidney disease) can also result from the following causes: 

  • Shock

  • Stress

  • Infection 

  • Untreated diseases

  • Blood clots

  • Blood loss

  • Kidney stones

  • Dehydration 

  • High blood pressure

  • Congestive heart failure

What Causes Chronic Kidney Disease in Dogs 

Many causes of kidney damage are the same for both CKD and AKD. However, there are a few underlying causes that are prominently associated with chronic kidney disease. 

Dental Disease

Other than aging, another common cause of chronic kidney disease in dogs is actually periodontal disease. The bacteria in the mouth that forms tartar, can spread through the bloodstream and move into vital organs like the kidneys. In fact, the bacterial invasion does not only affect the kidneys, but also the heart and liver. 

Additional Risk Factors 

A group of veterinarians known as the International Renal Interest Society (or IRIS) composed a list of additional risk factors that can lead to kidney disease in both dogs and cats. These risk factors include: 

  • Glomerulonephritis (acute inflammation of the kidneys)

  • Nephrolithiasis (kidney stones)

  • Pyelonephritis (kidney infection)

  • Ureteral obstruction & hydronephrosis (blockage caused by stones)

  • Tubulointerstitial disease (involving the kidney tubules)

  • Cancer

  • Leptospirosis

  • Amyloidosis (a protein condition)

  • Hereditary nephropathies (a genetic condition)

kidney disease in dogs symptoms

General Kidney Disease Symptoms

Next, let's cover the symptoms of kidney disease that all pet owners should be aware of, regardless of whether your dog is at a higher risk of the ailment. 

Unfortunately, the early signs of kidney disease are often difficult to recognize. Many owners may notice that their dog is drinking much more water than usual. This is in efforts to rid the body of the build-up of toxins that the kidneys aren't able to manage on their own. Eventually, and often not long after the excessive water intake begins, the accumulation of toxins become a serious issue that even ample amounts of water can't resolve. 

Additionally, pet owners should keep an eye out for the following general symptoms of kidney disease in dogs: 

Acute Kidney Disease Symptoms | AKD Symptoms

Symptoms of acute kidney disease are those of 'general' kidney disease. The important difference is that in terms of AKD, the symptoms develop extremely fast. Therefore, it is imperative that dog owners understand that timely medical intervention is paramount.

Chronic Kidney Disease Symptoms | CKD Symptoms 

Similarly, the symptoms of CKD are those of 'general' kidney disease, yet they develop slowly over time. This is troubling due to the fact that most symptoms don't become obvious until up to 75% of kidney function has diminished. Therefore, it is extremely important for dog owners to be implicitly aware of anytime their dog's health seems "off" and act accordingly. Do not delay in getting your four-legged companion the medical attention that can ultimately save their life. Additional symptoms of chronic kidney disease include: 

  • Urinary incontinence (urine leakage)

  • Dehydration

  • Lethargy

  • Reduced appetite

  • Vomiting

  • Weight loss

  • Bad breath with a chemical odor

  • Oral ulcers

  • Pale appearance

Stages of Kidney Disease in Dogs

The International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) are responsible for the staging criteria. The IRIS’s mission is to better aid veterinary practitioners in diagnosing and treating kidney disease in dogs and cats. 

As we previously mentioned, these experts refer to chronic kidney disease in four stages. The stages are based on the blood creatinine and SDMA levels. There are also substages that are based on proteinuria and high blood pressure.

  • Stage I (nonazotemic): refers to a decrease in kidney function which allows a build-up of toxins. However, the toxicity build-up has not yet reached dangerous or irreversible levels. 

  • Stage II (mild azotemia): often has mild or no symptoms, but there is toxicity in the blood. 

  • Stage III (moderate azotemia) Many clinical signs may be present but the severity may vary.  

  • Stage IV (severe azotemia) refers to progressed stages of kidney disease. The dog will show physical symptoms. Often, the damage to the kidneys is severe and irreversible. 

*Azotemia refers to when the toxins in the blood build up and exceed the normal range (BUN and creatinine). When the patient feels sick from the toxins, the condition is called uremia.

stages of kidney disease in dogs

What Causes Kidney Failure | Renal Failure

Ultimately, renal failure is caused by untreated kidney damage and associated kidney disease. If your dog's kidney issues continue, it is only a matter of time before the toxicity levels become more than the dog's body can handle. 

General Renal Failure Symptoms

Symptoms of renal failure are typically those of renal disease, yet much more severe. Additional clinical signs of renal failure include: 

  • Anemia 

  • Dehydration (even with increased water consumption)

  • Lethargy and/or depression

  • Increase in urination and/or difficulty urinating

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

  • Fluid accumulation (often causing swelling in the abdomen and/or limbs)

  • Changes in the kidneys

  • Abdomen tenderness

  • Hunched over posture

  • Reluctance to move

  • Changes in behavior (often total withdrawal) 

Treatment for Kidney Disease

Treating kidney disease in dogs will ultimately depend on the underlying cause of the damage, whether the condition is acute or chronic, and how progressed the disease is. The most common treatments include fluid therapy and therapeutic diets. Additional medications may be needed for elevated blood pressure, electrolyte changes or anemia. Sadly, in cases of kidney failure, there is typically no cure. Pet owners are encouraged to keep their dog as comfortable as possible as the disease is often fatal. 

Preventing Kidney Issues in Dogs

As we previously mentioned, not all kidney issues can be entirely prevented. However, there are several important steps that pet owners can take in order to prevent damage to the vital organs. 

Limiting Toxicities 

Perhaps the most important thing that dog owners can do is limit their pet's exposure to chemically based medications and vaccinations. Talk to your holistic veterinarian regarding which vaccines are actually necessary for your dog's individual needs. (Trust us, they aren't all necessary) Furthermore, it is important for dog owners to understand that there are countless holistic alternatives to the vast majority of conventional medications. 

Regular Check-Ups

Finally, we want to reiterate that early detection can make a world of difference when it comes to kidney disease in dogs. Pet owners should make sure there are staying on top of their fur baby's health by scheduling regular check-ups and having routine lab work performed.

diagnosing kidney disease in dogs

Kidney Disease in Dogs: The Bottom Line

Being a doting dog owner isn't always a walk in the park. In fact, when problems arise it can not only be a heart-wrenching time, but an incredibly frustrating one as many pet owners wonder what went wrong. From always feeding Fido a species-appropriate diet that's full of nutrients to make sure they have plenty of mental and physical stimulation, you do your best to ensure your dog's health and well-being. Yet, from time to time, health issues inevitably develop. It is imperative that dog owners understand the tell-tale signs of certain common medical conditions in order to treat the ailment before it worsens.


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Mast Cell Tumor in Dogs: An Introductory Guide

Mast Cell Tumor in Dogs: An Introductory Guide

Finding lumps and bumps on your perfect furry friend can be quite troubling for a dog owner. It's hard to train our minds to not automatically think the worst. Yet, if you jumped on Google and typed in "lumps on dogs," you're probably already in a downward spiral of panic. This is going to sound like an impossible thing to ask... but try to remain calm. Many lumps and bumps on dogs are nothing more than a mole or a minor allergic reaction. However, some lumps, of course, are much more serious than that.

In this article, we will cover everything you should know about mast cell tumors in dogs. It is imperative for pet owners to know how to recognize the symptoms of the disease in order to catch it early on and begin treatment straight away. While your dog's lump may be something that is easily resolved, in some cases, such as mast cell tumors, immediate treatment is imperative. 

mast cell tumor dog

Mast Cells: The Basics

Before we dive straight into mast cell tumors, there is some basic terminology that is important for dog owners to recognize in order to fully understand their dog's disease. Our dogs trust us to take the best care of them.  By understanding what is actually wrong with Fido, pet owners can ensure that they are making the best decisions for their wellbeing.

What Are Mast Cells 

Mast cells are a type of white blood cell that originates in the bone marrow but mature and settle in other tissues. In fact, mast cells are found within all connective tissues of the body. With that said, mast cells exist in much larger volumes in the skin, respiratory tract, and digestive tract. They are also found in large quantities around the eyes, nose, and mouth. Mast cells contain histamine and heparin and are involved in a number of important functions.

What Do Mast Cells Do 

Mast cells are part of our immune system and they help to provide the body with defense against parasitic infestations. Additionally, mast cells support the dog's body in repairing tissues and therefore help promote the healing process. They also play a crucial role in a process known as angiogenesis or the formation of new blood vessels.

Also as a type of white blood cell, mast cells produce antibodies in part of an allergic reaction defense. Mast cells release chemicals and compounds (such as histamine) when exposed to allergens. Histamines are known for causing symptoms of allergies such as sneezing, itching, and runny eyes. However, when these substances are released in high amounts, they can also cause anaphylaxis and life-threatening allergic reactions.

mast cell tumor

Tumors in Dogs... What Exactly Are They 

In simple terms, a tumor is the swelling of a specific body part. Tumors typically occur without inflammation and are caused by an abnormal growth of tissue. Tumors are either identified as malignant (cancerous and dangerous) or benign (noncancerous and usually harmless).

What is Mast Cell Tumor (also known as Mastocytoma in Dogs) 

A mast cell tumor or MCT is cancer that develops from mast cells. Mast cell tumors (also known as mastocytomas) are the most commonly diagnosed skin tumors in dogs. In fact, approximately one-third of all tumors in dogs are skin tumors. Of that one third, roughly twenty percent are mast cell tumors. Some mast cell tumors have a low level of malignancy and are relatively harmless to the dog. However, other MCTs have a high level of malignancy. These tumors can be life-threatening if appropriate treatment isn't initiated in a timely manner.

Mast Cell Tumor in Dogs: Where Are They Found

Mast cell tumors can be found anywhere in the dog's skin, but are most frequently seen around the trunk and limbs. However, MCTs can also be found in other places, including the intestines and lungs. Furthermore, even in cases where mast cell tumors originated in the skin, more aggressive MCTs are known to spread quickly to other organs, typically the spleen, liver, and bone marrow. This ultimately dictates the stage and grade of the mast cell tumor (more on that in a moment).

What Causes Mast Cell Tumors to Develop

Even with constant advancements in science that are being made every day, there is still so much about cancer and tumors that remain unknown. When it comes to mast cell tumors, in the majority of cases, the exact underlying cause is undetermined. With that said, scientists do know that MCTs are the result of a cell mutation (in a protein called KIT) within the mast cells. The mutation causes the uncontrollable reproduction and growth of the cancer cells, thus resulting in mast cell tumors.

What Do Mast Cell Tumors Look Like

Due to the fact that MCTs vary so greatly in appearance, they can often be difficult to detect. Mast cell tumors can develop in differing shapes, sizes, textures, and in a number of different locations. MCTs can also be soft or firm, raised or flat, as well as covered in hair or ulcerated. They tend to start small but can rapidly increase in size. They have also been known to fluctuate in the size of the tumor.

Symptoms of Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs 

It is imperative for dog owners to be aware of the symptoms of mast cell tumors. The earlier the MCT is diagnosed, the better the prognosis and life expectancy times.

A Bump or Lump 

It probably goes without saying that the most prominent physical symptom of mast cell tumors is the presence of a lump or bump (a tumor) under or on the skin. The tumor may have existed for days, weeks, or even months before the owner noticed it. This is largely due to the fact that the tumor may have fluctuated in size, making it more difficult to detect. Furthermore, as we previously mentioned, the tumor may have only existed for a short period of time, but has rapidly grown, seemingly overnight.

It is important for dog owners to know that mast cell tumors (especially in early stages of their development) may resemble warts or insect bites. It is imperative that pet parents closely monitor any new lumps or bumps that they find on Fido. A wart or insect bite will likely resolve itself whereas an MCT will not.

mast cell tumor symptoms

Redness or Fluid Buildup

Another symptom of mast cell tumors is the presence of redness and/or fluid build up around the tumor. Skin irritation and inflammation are also commonly due to the release of higher histamine levels within the tumor.

Enlarged Lymph Nodes

Pet parents may also find lymph node enlargement around the area of the tumor. In many cases, the surrounding lymph nodes will be surgically removed as part of MCT treatment. 

Spleen and Liver Enlargement

High-grade mast cell tumors can spread to the liver and spleen, which may cause organ enlargement or fluid buildup in the abdomen, causing the belly to appear rounded or distended. 

Gastrointestinal Issues

Finally, gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite are often signs that the cancer cells are spreading. Gastric ulceration can also occur when mast cells degranulate and release compounds into the bloodstream. Melena, or black tarry stools, is often a sign of a bleeding ulcer in the GI tract. 

Dog Breeds at Higher Risk of Mast Cell Tumors 

Although mast cell tumors are typically diagnosed in older dogs, they have also been found in puppies as young as three months old. With that said, It is possible for dogs of any breed or age to develop mast cell tumors.

However, based on extensive research, experts have also determined that certain breeds are at an increased risk of developing canine mast cell tumors. 

These breeds include:

  • Boston Terriers
  • Boxers
  • Weimaraners
  • Bulldogs
  • Pit Bull Terriers
  • Rhodesian Ridgebacks

Mast Cell Tumor Dog Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will likely perform a fine-needle aspiration and cytology in order to accurately diagnose whether your dog has a mast cell tumor.

Fine-Needle Aspiration

A fine-needle aspirate is a rather quick procedure that is done without having to sedate the dog. This involves taking a small needle and suctioning a sample of cells directly from the tumor. The sample is placed onto a microscope slide and examined by your veterinarian. The cytology can also be sent to a pathologist to confirm the diagnosis. The grade of the tumor cannot be diagnosed on cytology alone.  

Surgical Biopsy

If cancer cells are present on the cytology, a surgical tissue biopsy will be necessary in order to classify the grade of the tumor. The biopsy will also determine if the margins are clean or free of cancer cells. Generally, the veterinarian will take large margins around the tumor during surgery as long as the location permits. If the biopsy confirms a higher-grade tumor, further diagnostics will be needed to determine the stage of the tumor.

Additional Diagnostic Tools

Additional diagnostics are used to see if the tumor has spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Radiographs of the chest will be performed to rule out small nodules or metastasis in the lungs. Radiographs can also be used to look at the size of the liver and spleen. Abdominal ultrasound will look internally at these organs to see if there is any evidence of nodules. The vet may also aspirate any enlarged lymph nodes to rule out tumor metastasis.

Grades of Dog Mast Cell Tumors

The tumor grade of the MCT refers to its level of malignancy. Once again, the grade cannot be determined with the fine needle aspirate, only with the biopsy of the tumor after surgical removal. The grade will help your veterinarian make predictions as to how the tumor will develop and if it will affect other internal organs.

Grade I

Mast cell tumors that are classified as Grade I are typically benign and usually always occur on the surface of the skin. However, just because they are benign doesn't mean they should be ignored. Some Grade I MCTs can grow to be quite large and prove to be difficult to remove. Even so, the good news is that Grade I MCTs have not spread to the surrounding organs. Surgery alone should be curative as long as there are good margins on the biopsy report and no cancerous cells were seen on the margins of the sample. If cancerous cells were left behind, a follow up surgery for wider margins or radiation therapy may be recommended. 

Grade II

Mast cell tumors that are classified as Grade II are those that extend below the surface of the skin and into the subcutaneous tissues of the body. Treating Grade II MCTs can prove to be difficult to predict in terms of outcome. This is largely due to the unpredictable biological behavior of Grade II MCTs. The majority of tumors fall in this grade. A newer classification system has been implemented to determine if it will act more as a low-grade or high-grade tumor. An estimated 65% of Grade II mast cell tumors are cured with surgery. With that said, it is still possible for the tumor to return or for the spreading of cancer cells to occur.

Grade III

Grade III MCTs are those which prove to be the most difficult to treat. Mast cell tumors that are diagnosed as Grade III tend to spread quickly throughout the body. Even with aggressive treatment, the disease often has already developed deep below the skin's surface. High-grade MCTs will often require surgery and cancer treatments including chemotherapy and radiation. Sadly, in most cases, Grade III mast cell tumors are not a disease that the dog can overcome.

Stages of Mast Cell Tumor Dog

The tumor stage of the MCT refers to its metastasis. The stage will help your vet determine to what degree the tumor has developed and spread. Different stages also refer to the degree to which the surrounding lymph nodes are affected. Staging is determined using further diagnostics such as chest radiographs (to look for metastasis and lymph node enlargement), abdominal ultrasound (to evaluate the spleen and liver), and lymph node aspirates. 

Stage I

Mast cell tumors that are classified as Stage I are those that involve only one tumor in the skin. They also do not have any lymph node involvement.

Stage II

Stage II MCTs are also a single tumor confined to the skin but there is evidence of lymph node involvement. 

Stage III

Stage III mast cell tumors are characterized by either multiple tumors or by a large tumor that has spread into the subcutaneous tissues. Mast cell tumors that are Stage III may or may not have lymph node involvement.

Stage IV

Finally, Stage IV MCTs are characterized by one or more tumors with metastasis in the skin. It is also common for the tumors to have spread to other internal organs. Additionally, Stage IV mast cell tumors involve the lymph nodes.

Treatment for Mast Cell Tumor 

The grade and stage of the mast cell tumor will ultimately dictate the appropriate and necessary treatment.

As we previously mentioned, mast cell tumors have high levels of histamine. Therefore, any manipulation of the tumor may cause a sudden and extreme release of histamine to enter the bloodstream, causing a severe reaction. For this reason, your veterinarian may prescribe antihistamines (most commonly Benadryl) to combat any adverse effect. An antihistamine medication will also help to protect the internal organs that could be harmed from the sudden histamine release.

mast cell tumor treatment for dogs

Surgical Removal

Surgery to excise the tumor is typically the preferred method of treatment, as long as it can be removed easily and there is no evidence of spread. The Grade of the MCT and margins on the surgical biopsy will help your veterinarian to predict the success rate of the surgery. A more aggressive surgery, as well as additional treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation, will often be necessary in cases where the cancer cells have spread to close to the surgical margins.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation is recommended for tumors that were not completely excised and a second surgery is not possible or for tumors that cannot be surgically removed due to their location on the body. In these cases, your veterinary oncologist (a veterinarian who specializes in cancer patients) will likely recommend radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is more appropriate for tumors that are localized and have not yet spread. If metastasis is evident, chemotherapy may be the more appropriate option.  


Chemotherapy is recommended for high-grade tumors where there is evidence of spread to local lymph nodes or other organs. It can also be used when the tumor is too large for surgery or radiation to control. There are several different drugs and protocols including prednisone, injectable chemotherapy (such as vinblastine, Lomustine) or oral medications (Palladia and Kinavet). These treatment protocols can vary in expense and side effects. 

Palliative Therapy

Palliative care is focused on relief from symptoms and improving the quality of life for patients in which chemotherapy or radiation is too expensive or not an option. These medications do not slow the progression of the disease. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, have been shown to be directly toxic to mast cells and reduce inflammation. Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), are used to reduce the effects of histamine that is leaked from mast cells throughout the body. Histamine also signals production of stomach acid, which can cause stomach ulcers, and other gastrointestinal symptoms.  Famotidine, an over-the-counter histamine blocking antacid, is also used to prevent gastric ulcers. 

Mast Cell Tumor Dog Life Expectancy

Survival times and overall prognosis for dogs diagnosed with mast cell tumors ultimately depends on several factors. First, prognosis depends greatly on the grade and stage of the MCT. Complete surgical excision on low-grade tumors generally has a good prognosis for a cure.  Survival times also depend on whether or not the dog receives the appropriate treatment. Surgeries and radiation treatment prove to be extremely pricey. Some pet owners will, unfortunately (and understandably), not be able to afford such treatment.

Sadly, dogs suffering from Stage III MCTs typically have a life expectancy of less than one year, even with aggressive treatment. 

As you can see, while we urge pet owners to try to remain calm when it comes to new lumps and bumps you may find on your dog, it is imperative to not ignore them either. You should always have any new lumps checked by your regular veterinarian. Your dog's life may very well depend on whether or not they were diagnosed early on.

mast cell tumor dog

Mast Cell Tumor in Dogs: A Final Thought 

Mast cell disease is a diagnosis that can devastate a dog owner. We understand the absolute heartache that a cancer diagnosis can cause and we are so sorry for our readers who are going through this currently. We want to encourage our readers to do their research when it comes to mast cell tumors and the available treatment options. Even something as simple as changing your dog's diet to the highest quality possible can significantly help your dog through their recovery process. 

Due to the fact that the underlying cause of dog mast cell tumors remains unknown, prevention can prove to be nearly impossible. However, by making sure that you stay aware of any changes you find in your dog is an effective way to catch any disease in its early stages. By being implicitly aware of your dog's "normal" you can make sure you're able to recognize when something is off and act accordingly.

From all of us here at Honest Paws, we sincerely hope your beloved four-legged friend feels better soon.


Jennifer Dempsey, DVM

Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) 

She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  

Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

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Dog Seizures: A Guide To Helping Your Pup

Dog Seizures: A Guide To Helping Your Pup

There are few things more heartbreaking than a dog owner witnessing their beloved furry companion have a seizure. It can leave you feeling helpless and terrified. What can you do? How can you comfort your pup during this time of distress? The good news is, while seizures are scary, they can be managed and even reduced. Furthermore, there are a number of things you can do as a pet parent to make sure that your epileptic dog stays safe while experiencing a seizure.

dog seizure

What is a Seizure 

Studies show that up to 5% of all dogs suffer from seizures. In fact, seizures are one of the most common neurological conditions diagnosed in dogs. A seizure is a temporary, involuntary disturbance of normal cognitive brain function. They may also be referred to as fits or convulsions. Uncontrollable muscle actions typically accompany seizures.  A dog who experiences seizures will often have them during times of changing brain activity (i.e. when they feel excited, during feeding, etc). 

Seizure Definition 

The medical definition of seizure is uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. This electrical activity may produce a physical convulsion, secondary physical signs, thought disturbances, or a combination of symptoms.

The scientific term for seizure is "ictus."

Canine Epilepsy Definition 

Epilepsy is a term used to describe repeated episodes of seizures.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs 

There are many causes of seizures in dogs; however, the most common cause is idiopathic epilepsy. Idiopathic epilepsy is an inherited condition, although experts aren't exactly sure what causes it to develop.  Additional causes of seizures include:

  • Liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain trauma
  • Toxins (i.e. poisoning)
  •  Anemia
  • Infectious diseases
  •  Low or high blood sugar
  • Electrolyte problems
  • Stroke

Breeds At Risk of Canine Seizures 

Interestingly enough, there are a number of dog breeds that are at a higher risk of developing seizures and epilepsy.

These breeds include:

  • Basset Hound
  • Beagle
  • Belgian Tervuren
  • Collies
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Golden Retriever
  • Keeshond
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Schnauzer
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Vizsla

While these dogs are at a higher risk, any dog has the potential to have seizures.

Types of Seizures | Seizure Symptoms 

There are many types of dog seizures. However, they are typically classified in one of three ways:

  • Generalized seizures - which can be either mild or tonic-clonic (sometimes referred to as grand mal seizures).
  • Focal or partial seizures
  • Focal or partial seizures accompanied by secondary generalization

Specific symptoms will vary depending on the type of seizure that your dog is experiencing.

seizure symptoms

Generalized Seizure 

A generalized seizure involves the whole body. It results from both hemispheres of the brain misfiring. A generalized seizure can last from 30-90 seconds. Recovery can be immediate or take up to 24 hours.

Underneath the generalized seizure "umbrella," dogs can experience tonic, tonic-clonic (grand mal), clonic, atonic, myoclonic and absence seizures (petit mal seizures) with the most common being grand mal.

Generalized Seizure Symptoms 

A dog experiencing a generalized seizure will often lose consciousness and fall. It is also common for their limbs to twitch and jerk.

It is also possible for your dog to stop breathing during a generalized seizure. Approximately 10-30 seconds after, your dog may chomp their jaw, involuntarily defecate or urinate, paddle their legs, whine, bark, and their pupils may dilate.

Grand Mal Seizure (AKA Tonic-Clonic Seizure) 

One of the most common types of seizures found in dogs is referred to as a Grand Mal seizure. Grand mal seizures typically present warning signs up to a day before the seizure occurs.

These warning signs include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Mood changes

Tonic-clonic seizures generally last one minute and are typically associated with epilepsy, low levels of blood sugar and salt or drug toxicity.

Focal Seizure |  Partial Seizure 

Localization characterizes these seizures. Focal seizures occur when a small area of nerve cells misfire in one hemisphere of the brain. Depending upon the dog’s level of awareness when it occurs, the seizures are either referred to as simple or complex.

In the majority of cases, your dog will remain conscious during a focal or partial seizure. However, consciousness will be more impaired when a complex seizure occurs.

Focal Seizure |  Partial Seizure Symptoms 

Common symptoms of a focal or partial seizure include:

  • Twitching in one side of the dog's face
  • Jerking in one side of the dog's body
  • Turning of the head to one side
  • A curving of the dog's body to one side
  • Moving only one limb

Many conditions cause partial seizures including:

  • Tumors
  • Trauma to the head
  • Brain infections
  • Congenital abnormalities
  • Stroke

Furthermore, partial seizures are often misdiagnosed as generalized seizures. However, if your veterinarian is able to determine where the seizure began, it will help to differentiate the seizures.

What is Status Epilepticus?

We briefly mentioned that epilepsy is a condition that describes a repeated seizure episode.

Status epilepticus can often be confused with cluster seizures. While they are similar in that your dog may experience several seizures in a short timeframe, dogs with status epilepticus do not regain consciousness between episodes. Status epilepticus is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires veterinary intervention immediately.

What Happens During a Seizure 

When seizures occur they typically happen in a series of phases.


The phase referred to as prodrome typically occurs days or hours before the actual seizure. In this phase, pet owners often see initial changes in their dog's behavior and mood.

Aura or Pre-ictal Phase 

The aura or pre-ictal phase can last a few seconds or a few hours. In this phase, the dog will often become nervous, needy, or anxious and may seek out attention from their owner. You may also find your dog acting restless, whining, shaking, or salivating. The dog behaves in a way as if they know something is about to happen.

Ictus/Seizure Phase 

This phase can last between a few seconds to five minutes. In the ictus phase, your dog may pass out and experience involuntary muscle spasms and actions.

Additional symptoms associated with this phase are:

  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Twitching
  • Chomping
  • Drooling
  • Urination
  • Defecation

Post Ictus/Ictal Phase 

During the postictal phase, your dog will likely be disoriented and confused. The dog may pace back and forth or be unresponsive.

Additionally, temporary vision and/or hearing loss may occur.

Increased thirst or hunger, as well as excessive salivation, is also common in this phase. The post-ictus phase can last from a few minutes up to several days.

dog seizure brain

What To Do For An Epileptic Dog

Now, we're sure you're wondering what you can do to comfort an epileptic dog. As terrifying as seizures may look, they actually aren't painful for your dog. However, they can ultimately cause a great deal of confusion.

If your dog is having a seizure, it is essential to try to keep the external environment as calm and as quiet as possible. Bright lights and loud noises can make the seizure worse as well as cause further seizures to occur. Additionally, make sure that all other pets are kept out of the room. This goes hand in hand with keeping the noise and stress levels at an absolute minimum. Some dogs may become aggressive after the seizure, so this may also avoid fights. 

It is important to protect your pet from injuring itself during or after a seizure. Make sure there are no potential hazards in the area. Also never place your hands near a dog’s mouth during the seizure, as you risk being bitten. Dogs are unconscious, so do not try to arouse or startle them out of a seizure.  

Furthermore, it is important to record as much information about the seizure as possible. This information will help your vet determine the cause and proper way to treat future seizures. Immediate veterinary care should be sought if the seizure lasts more than three minutes, or if your pet has two or more seizures in a twenty-four period. 

How to Prevent Dog Seizures

Preventing seizures will ultimately depend on what is causing them in the first place.

As we previously mentioned, poisoning can often result in your dog experiencing seizures. If you suspect that poisoning is at the root of the problem, be sure to remove any potential culprits from in or around your home. 

These include:

  • Lead-infused paint
  • Golf balls
  • Foil attached to bottle tops
  • Batteries
  • Plumbing or building materials
  • Linoleum
  • Sugar-free gum
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Homemade playdough (salt dough)
  • Rodenticides/insecticides
  • Mushrooms
  • Sago palm
  • Illegal drugs
  • Medications (with potential to cause hypoglycemia)
  • Caffeine
  • Dark chocolate 

Additionally, the stress associated with loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks can also be at the root of isolated seizures. 

The best way to prevent these types of seizures is to remain calm and keep your home environment as peaceful as possible. Experts suggest playing calming music and talking sweetly to your pup. Additionally, lightning has the tendency to sneak up and scare all of us, humans included. Pet parents can create a distraction from the lightning outside by turning on all of the lights inside.  

Finally, it is imperative that pet owners get their dog’s blood values checked regularly to rule out any liver or kidney disease as well as low blood glucose levels. Your dog's diet is extremely important and ensuring that they get all of the proper nutrients they need can also help prevent seizures from occurring.

Seizure & Epilepsy Treatment

Seizure treatment typically begins if:

  • The dog experiences more than one seizure a month
  • The dog has clusters of seizures where one seizure is immediately followed by another one
  • The dog experiences grand mal seizures that are either very severe or lengthy in duration
  • The postictal disorientation phase is severe
  • The dog has a history of brain trauma/injury or a brain lesion on advanced imaging

Conventional Anti-Seizure Medications

Once the anti-seizure medication is initiated, it must be given for the remainder of the dog's life. Studies show that if anticonvulsant medication is started and then discontinued, the dog's chance of developing more severe seizures in the future greatly increases.

The two drugs most commonly used to treat seizures in dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide (K-BroVet chewable tablets). Additional newer medications include zonisamide and levetiracetam extended-release treatment. These medications require a prescription from your veterinarian along with routine veterinary check-ups in order to monitor the efficacy of the drug.

The Dangers of Conventional Anti-Seizure Medications 

At the end of the day, seizures and epilepsy are scary conditions. It only makes sense that dog owners would do just about anything and everything possible to relieve their pup of the scary condition. However, at what cost? While we are certainly not trying to take away the importance of conventional medication, we want our readers to be aware of the potential dangers.

For starters, while anti-seizure medications can treat some forms of epilepsy, they can also have lasting, at times irreversible, effects on the dog's vital organs including the liver and kidneys. This is why the routine monitoring of the organs is so important. Yes, your dog may suffer fewer seizures, but they could potentially face liver disease instead. Is it worth it?

Additionally, even when administered properly, conventional anti-seizure medications don't always work on all seizure disorders. Unfortunately, you read that correctly. Some pets may require a combination of several anti-seizure medications to better control their epilepsy. There are some cases of refractory epilepsy in which two or more drugs have failed in controlling the seizures. 

Let's take a look at some of the most commonly prescribed anti-seizure drugs and their effects on the dog's body.


  • Short-term effects: fatigue, nervousness, lethargy, a lack of coordination,  increased appetite, increased drinking and urination. 
  • Long-term (less common) effects: anemia and liver damage, including scarring of the liver and consequent liver failure

Potassium bromide 

  • Short-term effects: irritability, vomiting, loss of coordination and instability in the hind end of the body, sedation, increased drinking and urination
  • Long-term (less common) effects: bromide toxicity which leads to disease and failure of the vital organs

Levetiracetam (Keppra)

  • Relatively safe and well-tolerated
  • Short-term effects: sedation, gastrointestinal upset, anorexia, changes in behavior


  • Short-term effects: loss of coordination, depressed appetite, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Rare effects: liver disease, urinary stones, aggression

The long-term effects of these conventional medications are often irreversible. It is very important to monitor drug levels and liver values as recommended by your veterinarian, to hopefully catch any changes early enough to be able to reverse them. 

What is even more troublesome about these drugs is that they can all cause a build-up of toxins in the body. A build-up of toxicity ultimately leads to more seizures. Additionally, as we previously mentioned, stopping the medication can also lead to more seizures. We highly encourage our readers to consult with a holistic veterinarian and neurologist to learn about all the different treatment options available and determine what is best for their individual pet.  

Furthermore, there are other alternatives!

natural anti-seizure treatment

Natural Anti-Seizure Treatment 

Fortunately, there is a natural anticonvulsant medication for dogs with seizures. We are lucky to be living in a time where holistic wellness is making great strides forward in the ways that we are able to treat our pets. Hopefully, with continued studies and research, conventional anti-seizure medication can be a treatment of the past.

CBD for Seizures and Epilepsy

Neurologists at Colorado State University recently published data from a small pilot study to evaluate the short-term effects of CBD oil on seizure frequency. It was found that 89% of dogs that received CBD in the trial had a reduction in the frequency of seizures. The doctors are excited about the potential for using CBD in the future as an alternative to existing anti-seizure drugs.  

CBD Oil 

Pet parents can opt to introduce CBD into their dog's life in a number of different ways. CBD oil will likely come in tincture form. The CBD tincture comes with an easy-to-use dropper which allows dog owners to have total control over exactly how much CBD product their dog receives.  The CBD oil can be mixed into the dog's food or put on top of their favorite treat.

CBD Side Effects 

Again, one of the greatest parts about CBD is that it has virtually zero side effects. CBD products are all-natural and non-toxic. 

Food Therapy 

A specific diet can make a world of difference for a dog suffering from seizures and epilepsy. Experts recommend ketogenic diets that are low in carbohydrates and high in fats. Studies have shown that these diets are highly beneficial for treating seizures. In fact, diet is incredibly essential in healing just about any ailment that your dog may face. A species-appropriate, raw food diet can also be extremely beneficial in treating a slew of conditions. We recommend consulting with a holistic vet in terms of what diet changes will best suit your dog's individual needs.

In 2017, Purina released a new veterinary therapeutic that uses medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) as the fat source, which can add to increased seizure control in conjunction with mediations.  One can also contract a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to help formulate a home-cooked diet as another option.


Studies have also shown that Chinese medicine such as acupuncture has been effective in treating dogs with seizures. Acupuncture, like most great things, works best with consistency. Therefore, this may not be the best or a realistic treatment method for some dog owners. However, it is comforting to know that alternative treatment means do exist.

Dog Seizures: The Bottom Line

With all things considered, we know that you want what’s best for your pet. At Honest Paws, we are all dog owners and pet lovers. Therefore, we know how troubling it can be when your beloved four-legged friend faces any kind of ailment. Seizures, in particular, can be extremely heart wrenching for a dog owner to experience.

Luckily, we are all living in a forward-moving time in terms of holistic healing and wellness. We are incredibly grateful that all-natural alternatives are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.

The fact that we have the ability to have a choice and a say as to how we can heal our loved ones is something that we can all be excited about. From CBD hemp oil to acupuncture to specialized diets, there are ways to help our furry companions without the need for harmful conventional medications. We are elated that holistic alternatives are making such a massive difference in so many human and animal lives. Here at Honest Paws, we are so happy to have a small part in delivering the positivity to our readers.

As always, consult with your holistic vet regarding the appropriate way to move forward for your individual pup.


Jennifer Dempsey, DVM

Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) 

She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  

Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

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Addison's Disease in Dogs: A Comprehensive Guide

Addison's Disease in Dogs: A Comprehensive Guide

It's hard to not go into full throttle panic mode when something is wrong with your fur child. Trust us, we get it. Having your dog diagnosed with any disease can be extremely heart wrenching for any pet parent. With that being said, if your pup was recently diagnosed with Addison's disease, try to remain calm. While there certainly is an adjustment period, the disease is entirely manageable.

In this article, we hope to inform our readers of the disease as well as symptoms to look out for and the ways to manage it. Take a deep breath, you got this!

addison's disease in dogs

The Basics of Addison's Disease

You may also hear Addisons disease in dogs referred to as canine hypoadrenocorticism. While it is a fairly uncommon disease, when hypoadrenocorticism does occur in dogs, it may be seen more in does develop is it typically seen in young to middle-aged female canines (with an average age of four years old). With that being said, it is entirely possible for Addison's disease to develop at any age and affect both male and female dogs.

Furthermore, while the disease is relatively uncommon, it is still important to know the signs and potential causes for its development. While it is completely manageable with the appropriate treatment plan and medication, if left untreated, Addison's disease can be fatal. Therefore, if you suspect that your dog may have the disease, a timely diagnosis is absolutely imperative.

What is Addison's Disease in Dogs

The adrenal gland is a small organ located just in front of the kidney, which is how it got its name.  It consists of the medulla in the center and outer area called the cortex. The function of the adrenal gland is to produce hormones. Addison’s disease is concerned with the hormones called corticosteroids, which are produced in the cortex.  Addison's disease develops as a result of damage to the dog's adrenal glands. Adrenal glands are much more important than many people may realize. Cortisol and aldosterone are among two of the most important hormones that the glands produce.

adrenal gland in dogs

What is Cortisol 

Cortisol is the hormone that manages sugar, fat, and protein metabolism. Cortisol is also responsible for the dog’s response to stress.

What is Aldosterone 

Aldosterone is the hormone responsible for balancing the sodium and potassium in the dog’s body. Additionally, aldosterone plays a large role balancing sodium and potassium levels in situations when the dog's body is under stress.

As you can imagine, when these hormones aren’t functioning properly or aren't balanced, a slew of issues can quickly arise. These corticosteroid hormones are very important in helping our pets adapt to stressful situations, so even the smallest stresses can lead to a disaster.

What is Cushing's Disease 

The condition that is considered to be the opposite of Addison's disease is called Cushing’s disease. Cushing's disease is an overproduction of cortisol in the dog's body.

Potential Causes of Addison's Disease

Despite substantial research, not all causes of Addison's disease are known. Most commonly, the underlying cause is genetically based. In many of these cases, an autoimmune disorder causes the body to wrongfully see its own organs as a threat and attack them (this is also known as immune-mediated destruction).

Experts believe that other cases of Addison's disease are the result of trauma or diseases affecting the adrenal glands. For instance, different conditions such as infections of the adrenal glands like histoplasmosis or blastomycosis have been directly linked to the Addison's disease in dogs.

Other instances of Addison's disease are believed to occur from a problem in the dog’s pituitary gland. The issue results in the gland not producing the hormone ACTH which plays an important role in the production of cortisol in the body.

Types of Addison's Disease

Of the varying types of Addison's disease, primary, secondary, and treatment-induced are the three that pet owners should be aware of.

Primary Addison's Disease

Primary adrenocortical insufficiency is the most common type of Addison's disease in dogs. This type of Addison's disease occurs when the dog’s immune system destroys parts of the adrenal glands and they don’t function appropriately. Other causes for primary hypoadrenocorticism include medications, toxins, cancer or other concurrent diseases.

Secondary Addison's Disease

Secondary hypoadrenocorticism affects the pituitary glands (as opposed to the adrenal gland). The pituitary gland produces ACTH. ACTH is an important hormone that is responsible for sending signals to the adrenal glands. These signals alert the adrenal glands to make their own specific hormone.

If the pituitary gland stops producing ACTH, the adrenal glands, therefore, stop producing cortisol.  

If Fido is diagnosed with secondary Addison's disease, the treatment plan will involve medication that helps the produce the cortisol that it is not naturally making. This type of Addison's disease isn't accompanied by symptoms of an Addisonian crisis (symptoms of a bad sodium / potassium balance... more on that in a minute).

Treatment-Induced Addison’s Disease

Finally, the third type of Addison's disease is referred to as treatment-induced Addison's disease or iatrogenic Addison’s disease. It is the type of disease that is a result of prescription drugs.

Luckily, there are ways to prevent this form of Addison's disease from developing, but the trick is knowing the risks involved.

Iatrogenic Addison’s disease typically develops when a dog is taking a steroid medication for a long period of time and then comes off the medication too quickly. This is due to the fact that when dogs are taking steroids, their hormones levels increase in the body so the adrenal glands stop producing them.

For this reason (among others), it is so incredibly important to always discuss the proper way to use medications with your veterinarian and always follow the instructions accurately. Pet owners may believe that their beloved four-legged friend no longer needs to be on the steroid medication because they are feeling better. However, many dog parents do not realize that abruptly ending medication can quickly (and fairly easily) lead to a slew of additional problems to arise.

Furthermore, stopping steroids without slowly weaning the dog off of the medication can lead to issues that are irreversible. It is entirely possible for the adrenal glands to not be able to start up again. Again, consult with your vet and develop a proper, monitored treatment plan for your dog's individual needs.

pituitary gland in dogs

Addison's Disease Symptoms

The following are symptoms of Addison's disease and can range from mild to severe. It is incredibly important for pet parents not to ignore mild symptoms as they can quickly worsen and prove to be much more difficult to manage in many cases.  Additionally, Addison's disease symptoms may appear suddenly and be severe or may appear intermittently and vary in severity with each occurrence.

Stomach Issues

Gastrointestinal issues are a common sign of Addison's disease. Symptoms may include: painful stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, anorexia or weight loss. 

Of course, general stomach issues are also referred to as non-specific symptoms. In other words, they are symptoms of many different conditions. For instance, diarrhea is a symptom of Addison's disease but can also be a sign that Fido may have gone through the trash while you were at work. The same goes for other non-specific symptoms such as a loss of appetite. That's why it's so important to know your dog's "normal" behavior in order to recognize when something is off and be able to act accordingly.

addison's disease in dogs causes stomach issues


An increased amount of muscular weakness and overall tiredness are classical signs of Addison's disease. Many pet parents may not know that increased lethargy is directly tied to dehydration and hormone imbalance. Another telling symptom of Addison’s disease in dogs is increased thirst (polydipsia) and urination (polyuria). If Fido takes in more fluid or has any of the other aforementioned symptoms, a timely diagnosis is imperative in order to begin treatment and ensure the condition doesn't worsen.

Additional Symptoms of Addison's Disease

Symptoms of Addison's disease include:

  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Poor appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive thirst or fluid intake
  • Cool to touch
  • Excessive shaking
  • Slow heart rate
  • Change in blood pressure

Addison's Disease & Stress

When a dog is stressed their adrenal glands naturally produce higher levels of cortisol. This helps them deal with the stress. A dog with Addison's disease is unable to make enough cortisol and therefore is unable to properly deal with whatever stress they are currently facing. Therefore, the symptoms of Addison's disease will often be much more severe when the dog is stressed.

We likely don't have to tell you that dogs are highly sensitive creatures. What stresses one dog may not stress the next, but you can assume that if something is bothering you, your dog is picking up on it. Additionally, any changes in your dog's day to day routine, traveling, having guests over, etc. can cause them to experience an amount of stress that will cause the symptoms of Addison's disease to worsen.

This brings us back to the beginning of this article when we encouraged our readers not to panic. We know this is easier said than done, but a dog with Addison's disease should avoid stress at all costs and if something is stressing you out, you can be sure it's stressing Fido out.

Addisonian Crisis

Unfortunately, because of the fact that early symptoms are typically mild, many dogs aren't diagnosed with Addison's disease until they experience an Addisonian crisis. About 30% of dogs are diagnosed with Addison’s disease during a crisis. An Addisonian crisis is a medical emergency that results in your dog going into shock from a sodium and potassium imbalance and the collapse of their circulation system. The increase in potassium can cause heart arrhythmias. The blood glucose level can also drop dangerously low during the crisis. If Fido has any of the aforementioned symptoms, a timely diagnosis is imperative in order to begin timely treatment and ensure the condition doesn't worsen or result in death.  

Oftentimes, a dog experiencing an Addisonian crisis will appear to be extremely ill. Typical symptoms include:

  • Extremely dehydrated
  • Lethargy
  • Physically weak
  • Excessive shivering
  • Heart failure (Relatively uncommon but possible)

Addison's Disease Diagnosis

You may hear your vet refer to Addison's disease as “the great imitator.” This goes back to the non-specific symptoms that we discussed. Due to the fact that the symptoms of Addison's disease are also those of a slew of other conditions, your veterinarian will likely have to run a series of tests on your dog in order to accurately diagnose the disorder. When other diagnoses are ruled out, the veterinarian will confirm an adrenal insufficiency and thus an Addison's disease diagnosis by using an ACTH stimulation test.

Initial diagnostics typically include standard blood tests such as a complete blood count and a chemistry profile to check for imbalances such as:

  • Blood urea nitrogen (BUN)
  • Elevated creatinine
  • Decreased blood sugar
  • Anemia
  • Electrolyte abnormalities (including sodium and potassium)

If all the results are pointing to Addison's disease, then the vet will perform an ACTH challenge test in order to make the final diagnosis.

addison's disease in dogs diagnosis

ACTH Stimulation Test

An ACTH stimulation test involves injecting the dog with (you guessed it) ACTH. This is the pituitary hormone that tells the adrenal glands to release corticosteroids during times of stress. The dog’s cortisol levels are measured before and several hours after the injection of ACTH.  A dog that does not have Addison's disease will respond by showing increased cortisol levels. The vet will confirm that it's Addison's disease if there is no increase in the dog's cortisol levels after being injected with ACTH.

A screening test called a resting cortisol level can also be performed prior to an ACTH stimulation test. If the resting cortisol is in the normal range than Addison’s disease is less likely. If the results come back low, then Addision’s disease cannot be ruled out and an ACTH stimulation test should be performed. The resting cortisol test is less expensive than the ACTH test, so it may be useful if it comes back normal.

Preventing Addison's Disease

As we previously mentioned, some cases of Addison's disease are caused by genetics. In these cases, unfortunately, there is no real way to prevent the disease from developing. However, in other cases of Addison's disease in dogs, there are a few ways that pet owners can make sure they are protecting their pup's adrenal gland and ultimately prevent the disease.

Avoid Drugs and Chemicals 

Consuming dangerous drugs and chemicals is one way that Addison's disease may develop. Keeping these substances out of reach is an easy way to prevent Fido from accidentally eating them. 

For dogs that are on medications to treat Cushing’s disease, make sure to follow the recommended dosing. An overdose of these medications can cause destruction of the adrenal gland and lead to Addison’s disease. 

It goes without saying that consuming any drugs or chemicals may not result in Addison's disease, but will likely result in a serious issue developing either immediately or in the future. If you believe your dog may have eaten something dangerous, it is extremely important to have them checked by a vet right way.

Protect the Kidneys

Avoiding any pressure or impact on the sensitive area surrounding the kidneys is also an important way to prevent Addison's disease from developing.

Steroid Usage

As we previously mentioned, one of the most common known reasons behind Addison's disease is discontinuing steroid use too quickly. We understand that there are times when steroids may be necessary to get your beloved four-legged friend back on the right track. It is impossibly hard seeing your pet in pain so it makes sense that owners may think that as soon as the medication works, they should stop giving it (especially if you're aware of the dangers of so many conventional drugs). However, this truly can harm your dog more than you can imagine. It is imperative to always follow your veterinarian's instructions when starting and ending medications, particularly steroids. It can make a world of difference in your dog's health and well-being.

Protect the Adrenal Glands

It's pretty safe to assume that anything that causes harm to the adrenal glands has the potential to cause Addison's disease. Therefore, by protecting the adrenal glands you are helping to prevent the disease from developing.

Treatment for Addison's Disease

We know that that was a fair amount of potentially troubling information. However, we originally said not to panic for a reason. That is because and the reason is that when diagnosed appropriately and in a timely manner, hypoadrenocorticism in dogs is entirely treatable. Addison’s disease is not curable but it can be managed with lifelong treatment.

The long-term treatment of Addison’s in dogs involves replacing the essential hormones that the dog's body is no longer producing naturally. This is achieved with drugs such as Florinef (fludrocortisone), or a newer treatment option, Percorten-V (desoxycorticosterone pivalate | DOCP).

Percorten-V (DOCP) is a long-acting injectable mineralocorticoid medication and only has to be administered once every twenty-five day period. It’s been shown to offer much better results than Florinef. However, with that in mind, if your dog is prescribed Percorten-V (DOCP), they will typically also be prescribed a steroid called prednisone. Prednisone will have to be given daily to replace the corticosteroid in the body.

Once your dog's hormone levels are stabilized, it is important for them to be rechecked by a vet 2-3 times a year so that the dose of medication can be altered if necessary.

Treatment for an Addisonian Crisis 

If your dog is in an Addisonian crisis your veterinarian will likely recommend hospitalization with the administration of intravenous fluids and other medications such as dexamethasone, and potentially glucose (sugar). The fluid will help stabilize your dog.

Managing Addison’s Disease in Dogs

Here's the good news. With proper treatment and an understanding of how to manage the disease, Addison's disease in dogs has a good prognosis. With the appropriate care, the majority of Addison's dogs won’t have any disease-related problems that could lead to their lifespan being shortened.

As a pet owner, the most difficult aspect of managing Addison's disease is making sure that you are staying on top of necessary medications and always being on the lookout for signs of an Addisonian crisis. Pets undergoing stressful situations such as boarding, traveling and surgery may require an increase in the prednisone dosing to compensate for the additional stress and anxiety. In the beginning, it is important for your dog's blood to be tested weekly. However, once stabilized, you'll likely only need to have their blood checked 2-4 times a year.

Again, we cannot stress enough the importance of knowing your dog's "normal" behavior. We wish that our dogs could talk to us and tell us exactly how they are feeling. However, this just isn't the case. Dogs are notorious for hiding pain and playing it cool. Therefore, if anything seems off, chances are, something is very off. It is imperative to be able to quickly recognize these changes and act accordingly.

addison's disease in dogs treatment

Breeds at Risk of Addison's Disease

While any dog, at any age, any breed, and either sex can develop Addison's disease, studies have found that certain breeds seem to be at higher risk.

These breeds include:

  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
  • Portuguese Water Dogs
  • Standard Poodles
  • Airedale Terrier
  • Basset Hound
  • Bearded Collies
  • Great Dane
  • Rottweiler
  • Springer Spaniels: English Springer Spaniel and Welsh Springer Spaniel
  • Saint Bernard
  • Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
  • West Highland White Terrier

If your pup happens to be one of the aforementioned breeds, it's even more important to be on high alert when it comes to recognizing symptoms of canine Addison's disease.

Addison's Disease in Dog's: The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, we know that your dog means the entire world to you. Trust us, we get it. At Honest Paws, we are all dog owners. That's why we know firsthand just how difficult it can be when your four-legged family member is diagnosed with a lifelong disease.

We are here to tell you that thanks to modern medicine, Addison's disease in dogs is very manageable and no longer a death sentence. Furthermore, a dog diagnosed with  Addisons disease dog can live just as long as a dog that doesn't have the condition.

By knowing the ways that you can help protect the adrenal gland, the signs of the disease, and what to do if symptoms occur, you can ensure that you are doing everything you can to keep Fido happy and healthy. Again, Addison's disease is manageable, but the first step in doing so is through an accurate diagnosis. If for any reason you believe that your dog may have Addison's disease, don't delay in contacting your veterinarian.



Jennifer Dempsey, DVM

Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) 

She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  

Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

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Phenobarbital for Dogs: A Definitive Guide

Phenobarbital for Dogs: A Definitive Guide

Your four-legged family member means the world to you. Trust us, we get it. At Honest Paws, we are all pet owners and animal lovers. Therefore, we know first hand how impossibly challenging it can be when something is wrong with (wo)man's best friend. Even worse, is experiencing it right before your eyes and knowing there is very little you can do. We're talking about dogs with epilepsy and seizures.

The first time your dog experiences a convulsion will undoubtedly be an incredibly difficult thing to experience. However, once it's over, the reality of the situation must be addressed. What to do now? There are several extremely important things to know about dog seizures and the associated medication used to treat them. Being armed with knowledge about the potential risks involved is imperative before beginning treatment.

In this article, we'll cover a popular medication used to treat seizures and epilepsy called phenobarbital. The realities of the drug may surprise you and will likely force you to reconsider whether the risks are worth the reward. We will also explore alternatives to the drug and ways that you can ensure Fido lives a long and happy life, regardless of their epilepsy diagnosis. Let's begin.

phenobarbital for dogs 

Understanding Dog Seizures

Before we jump into discussing all there is to know about phenobarbital, it is important to understand your dog's disorder. Studies show that up to 5% of all dogs suffer from seizures, yet so many owners don't completely know what having an epileptic dog entails. During the postictal phase after a seizure, the pet may also exhibit signs of disorientation, pacing, ataxia, and possible blindness.

Epilepsy is a term used to describe repeated episodes of seizures.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs

Many pet parents wonder if and how they can prevent seizures and epilepsy from developing in the first place. Was it something they could have stopped? The truth is, the majority of seizure disorders are referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. An inherited condition, idiopathic epilepsy is one in which experts are still unsure of the exact cause and origin. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion of other causes for seizures.  The majority of dogs diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy are between 1 to 5 years old.

In other cases, seizures may develop due to the following conditions:

  • Liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Brain trauma
  • Brain tumor
  • Anemia
  •  Infectious diseases
  • Low or high blood sugar
  • Electrolyte problems
  • Stoke
  • Toxins (such as poisoning)

Diagnostics such as bloodwork, radiographs, ultrasound and MRI scans will be needed to determine the underlying cause of the seizure. 

Breeds Prone to Seizures

While seizures can occur in any dog, certain breeds are at a higher risk of the disorder.

Some common breeds include:

  • Basset Hound
  • Beagle
  • Belgian Tervuren
  • Collie 
  • Cocker Spaniel  
  • Golden Retriever
  • Keeshond 
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Schnauzer 
  • Shetland Sheepdog

It is extremely important for pet owners to be aware of risks associated with their dog's specific breed. For instance, Great Danes are at higher risks of heart disease and Boston Terriers are more prone to developing glaucoma. Knowing whether or not your dog is at a higher risk of any disorder will ensure that you know the beginning signs of development and can help prevent it from worsening.

What To Do For An Epileptic Dog

When your dog is experiencing a seizure, one of the most important things that you can do is make their surroundings as calm and quiet as possible. Also make sure that your pet is safe and away from any potential hazards. Never place your hands near the mouth of a seizing dog as they are unconscious and can bite Seizures do not cause the dog any pain, but loud noises, bright lights, and stress can cause the seizure to worsen as well as cause additional episodes to occur. 

We also want to mention that as your dog's seizure can be frightening for you to watch, it is equally as troubling for other pets in the house. It is important to make sure that any other pets are kept away from the animal experiencing the seizure as additional barking can stress the dog out and cause more seizures to occur.

When to Begin Anti-seizure Medications

According to the American College of Veterinary Internal medicine, therapy should be started for any dog that fits into one of the following categories:

  • Cluster seizures or more than 3 seizures in a 24 hour
  • If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes
  • If the seizure or post-ictal phase is severe
  • If the dog has a history of a brain injury or trauma
  • If there is a visible brain lesion on advanced imaging (such as MRI)
  • Breeds that are known to have difficult seizure control (Australian shepherds, Border collies, German Shepherds, Golden retrievers, Irish setters and Saint Bernards)

What is Phenobarbital for Dogs

Now, let's get back on track: Phenobarbital for dogs.

Phenobarbital for dogs is one of the most commonly prescribed medications to control the frequency and severity of seizures and epilepsy. It is a widely utilized first choice anti-seizure medication as it is effective, easily dosed and reasonably priced. The drug is more widely known by its generic name, but also available in several brand names such as Luminal or Barbita. Phenobarbital can either be used alone or in conjunction with other drugs to better treat epilepsy in dogs. It is available in several different size capsules, tablets, oral liquid, or injectable (for emergencies) forms.

phenobarbital for dogs vs potassium bromide for dogs

Understanding How Phenobarbital for Dogs Works

A seizure occurs due to an unexpected surge in neuron activity in the brain. Phenobarbital works to minimize the severity and frequency of seizures by stabilizing and decreasing neuron activity within the brain. The drug also decreases the neurotransmitter (known as glutamate), which is responsible for nerve stimulation.

Phenobarbital Uses

Many conventional drugs serve a wide array of purposes and treat varying diseases all with the same pill. Phenobarbital, however, is primarily only used to treat seizures and epilepsy. In some (relatively) uncommon cases, phenobarbital may be used as a sedative.

Dosage Of Phenobarbital For Dogs

The appropriate dosage of Phenobarbital will significantly vary among different breeds of dogs. It is imperative that your veterinarian decides on the accurate dose after considering your dog's weight, the severity of the seizures, and how often they occur.

In most cases, your vet will direct you to administer Phenobarbital every 12 hours. Typically, the starting dose of Phenobarbital for dogs is around 1 mg per pound of bodyweight.  With all drugs, but particularly with Phenobarbital, it is extremely important that you do not miss a dose as it can cause your dog to have a severe seizure episode. If for any reason you do miss a dose, NEVER double up on the next dose. Give your dog the missed dose as soon as possible and then carry on with the usual routine of another dose every 12 hours.

Phenobarbital Precautions

Before we get into the side effects associated with phenobarbital, there are a number of dogs who shouldn't be taking it in the first place. It is imperative that your veterinarian knows absolutely everything when it comes to your dog's health and history in order to know whether or not Phenobarbital is an appropriate medication.

Dogs Who Should NOT Take Phenobarbital

If your dog has any of the following health conditions, they should not take phenobarbital:

Additionally, the following medications have been shown to have drug interactions with phenobarbital.

  • Antihistamines
  • Anticoagulants
  • Beta-adrenergic blocker
  • Corticosteroids
  • Diazepam (along with other central nervous system depressants)
  • Doxycycline
  • Furosemide
  • Griseofulvin
  • Metronidazole
  • Rifampin
  • Theophylline
  • Valproic acid
  • Phenytoin sodium
  • Opiate agonists
  • Phenothiazine
  • Aminophylline
  • Chloramphenicol
  • Quinidine

Phenobarbital Side Effects in Dogs

The aforementioned precautions associated with phenobarbital are enough to make anyone want to learn more about this popular medication. However, they aren't the only concerns associated with the drug. The following are the common side effects of phenobarbital for dogs.

Excessive Hunger & Weight Gain

A side effect of phenobarbital for dogs that many pet parents have found is excessive hunger. Subsequently, all of the extra food intake can often lead to weight gain, particularly if the medication also alters their normal amount of activity.

phenobarbital for dogs can cause weight gain

Excessive Thirst & Urination

Another common side effect of phenobarbital is excessive thirst and therefore an increased need to go to the bathroom. If you notice that your pup is frequently needing water bowl refills, it's likely a side effect of the medication.


Phenobarbital can also cause your dog to feel high levels of anxiety and uneasiness. As we touched on, anxiety is the enemy of dogs suffering from seizures and epilepsy as it can cause their seizures to worsen and occur more often.


The medication can also cause the dog to lose coordination in the hind limbs as well as experience bouts of weakness which inhibit their ability to move freely. This can be seen when initially starting the medication but it generally improves over time. 


Like people, dogs can also experience bouts of depression. If you notice your dog sleeping more than usual or appearing down in the dumps, the medication may be at fault.


Similar to the symptoms of depression, the medication can also cause the dog to be very lethargic and appear to have no interest in things they once enjoyed. This side effect is generally transient in nature. However, it may also be a sign that the dosage is too high for your pet.


Conversely, while some dogs experience high levels of lethargy, some experience the exact opposite: hyperexcitability or agitation. If you find your dog pacing nonstop, acting restless, panting without reason, or being especially vocal, it's likely a side effect of Phenobarbital.

Liver Damage & Liver Failure/Toxicity

Long-term use of phenobarbital has been directly linked to liver damage, including scarring in the liver and liver failure. Liver toxicity is also associated with prolonged high phenobarbital levels. It is very important to have your pet’s phenobarbital levels and liver values monitored during therapy. Signs of toxicity, liver damage, and/or liver failure include:

  •     Anorexia/Loss of appetite
  •     Vomiting
  •     Diarrhea and stool changes
  •     Weight loss
  •     Jaundice (yellow coloring of skin and mucous membranes)
  •     Lethargy


Lastly, in rare cases, phenobarbital has caused anemia to develop. Signs of anemia include pale gums and lethargy. If for any reason you feel that the medication has caused the development of another disease, contact your vet.

Lessening the Side Effects of Phenobarbital

As you can see, the side effects of Phenobarbital can be pretty terrible. Therefore, minimizing any side effects that you can is paramount for your dog's health and wellbeing. The best way to do this is to ensure that your vet prescribes the lowest viable dose possible.

Additionally, it is beyond important for pet owners to have a heightened awareness of the aforementioned side effects. Recognizing a side effect when it first appears and acting appropriately is key to preventing irreversible damage.

While your pet is on phenobarbital it is important to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for monitoring. Phenobarbital levels are checked after starting the medication to make sure your pet is on an appropriate dosage and then every 6-12 months thereafter. The levels should also be rechecked if there is an increased frequency of seizures or anytime the dose is adjusted.  In addition, your pet’s liver values should also be monitored at the same frequency to catch any early liver changes before they become significant. 

Anti Seizure Medication Produces Additional Seizures

Unfortunately, you read that correctly. A major cause of seizures in dogs is the build-up of chemicals and toxicity in the body. The long-term use of anti-seizure medications can flood the body with more toxins than it is able to flush out. On top of that, once the kidney or liver become damaged, even less toxins are able to be passed through the body. Hepatic encephalopathy is a condition that can be seen with severe liver disease. Seizures can then develop due to impaired liver function.

On the other end, stopping the anti-seizure medication can also lead to the development of additional seizures, some which can be life-threatening. For this reason, it is imperative that dog owners understand the risks involved with beginning an anticonvulsant medication.

phenobarbital for dogs is best avoided

Alternatives for Phenobarbital for Dogs

Now, thankfully there are new conventional, anticonvulsant drugs as well as all-natural alternatives for Phenobarbital for dogs. Before we dive into the options available, we want to stress that by no means are we trying to negate the need for conventional medicine. Some dogs in specific circumstances need Phenobarbital and we know that to be true. However, the medication is being prescribed at an exorbitant rate, many times to pet owners who do not fully understand the risk. The information we just discussed is not to scare you, but to make sure you are informed before making a decision.

Potassium Bromide

Potassium bromide is another older commonly prescribed drug that aims to reduce the severity and frequency of seizures. Often times, veterinarians will prescribe both potassium bromide and phenobarbital to be used together. In other cases, particularly in dogs who have a drug-resistance or in those who do not react will to phenobarbital, potassium bromide will be prescribed as a replacement.

There is only one FDA approved form of potassium bromide (K-BroVet), otherwise it can also be compounded through an approved pharmacy. Side effects may include nausea (which may improve by giving the medication with food), increased drinking and urination and drowsiness. Bromide levels also need to be monitored as a toxicity syndrome can be seen if the blood levels get too high. It can take months for the medication to reach a steady therapeutic blood level, so an additional anti-seizure medication may be needed in the beginning.

Levetiracetam (Keppra) 

Levetiracetam (Keppra) is a newer anticonvulsant medication that is now being prescribed to epileptic dogs. Keppra can be used alone or in conjunction with other anticonvulsant drugs. Many pet owners are eager to try the new medication as it allows for a decreased dosage of Phenobarbital and therefore a decreased amount of adverse effects. However, there are still certain risks and potential adverse effects associated with Keppra for dogs including drowsiness, lethargy, behavioral changes, and gastrointestinal upset. 

The main disadvantage of Keppra is that it usually has to be dosed three times a day for most patients. This means more potential for missed doses and an increase in seizures. There is an extended release formula that can be given twice daily but the tablets cannot be cut, thus it may not be a viable option for smaller pets. Tolerance can also be seen when used long term. In addition, patients with kidney disease may need a dose adjustment.

Zonisamide (Zonegran)

Zonisamide is also a newer anti-seizure drug being used in dogs. It is usually prescribed at twice a day and there are blood levels that can be monitored. The starting dose for zonisamide is usually higher for dogs that are also receiving phenobarbital.  The most common side effects include sedation, vomiting and diarrhea. 

The Power of Food

Additionally, we want to make sure that our readers never overlook the immense power that diet can have for our pets. For centuries and centuries, food has been used to cure and prevent a number of ailments. While science has certainly progressed, the fact of the matter is, food is still some of the best medicine available. Countless studies prove that a specifically formulated diet can be an absolute game-changer for an epileptic dog. Many experts advocate for a ketogenic diet, or one that is high in fats and low in carbohydrates. 

A new veterinary therapeutic diet from Purina uses medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) as the fat source, which can add to increased seizure control in conjunction to mediations.  One can also contract a board certified veterinary nutritionist to help formulate a home-cooked diet as another option. Remarkably, a simple dietary change has been shown to significantly reduce the severity and frequency of seizures in dogs.

Also, diet is also essential for dogs that are presently being treated with conventional anti-seizure medications. We discussed that these drugs are directly tied to kidney damage. Therefore, an exceptionally balanced diet will be paramount in ensuring that the body has enough support to help rebuild and protect the organ from additional damage occurring.


Finally, experts have found that the use of Chinese medicine such as acupuncture can have positive effects for dogs (and people) suffering from epilepsy. Keeping that in mind, acupuncture works best with strict consistency and may not be an appropriate match for everyone's lifestyle. Either way, the fact that so many pet owners are seeing benefits from alternative healing is something that we can all be grateful for.

Knowledge is Power 

The last thing that we want to mention is the importance of staying aware of new breakthroughs in pet wellness. For instance, new studies have found that several flea and tick medications are directly linked to an increase in seizure activity in epileptic dogs. Knowing all there is to know about your dog's condition and how to prevent it from worsening can truly affect your dog's wellbeing and make a difference in their quality of life.

Phenobarbital for Dogs: The Bottom Line

When all is said and done, we know that you want the very best for your beloved four-legged family member. With the constant advancements in both conventional and holistic medicine, we truly feel that owners of epileptic dogs have a number of safe, effective options available to them. With that said, as a pet owner, you must ensure that you are doing everything you can to understand your dog's condition and make educated decisions for their wellbeing. In many cases, this may mean forgoing the use of a drug such as Phenobarbital.


Jennifer Dempsey, DVM

Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) 

She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  

Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

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Atopica for Cats and Dogs: Know The Risk

Atopica for Cats and Dogs: Know The Risk

As a doting pet parent, you go above and beyond to ensure your furry companion's health and well-being. From making sure they are on the best diet possible to providing them with plenty of mental and physical stimulation, you try your best to do it all. That's why it can be pretty upsetting when problems inevitably arise. Was there anything you could have done to prevent it? What should you do now? 

Here at Honest Paws, we believe an essential part of being a responsible pet owner is being able to recognize the early signs of ailments and acting efficiently to resolve it before the condition progresses. One common health issue that arises for many cats and dogs is dermatitis, a skin condition that results from allergen exposure. If your pet develops the condition, your veterinarian may prescribe a medication called Atopica for dogs and cats in order to alleviate their symptoms. 

However, there are a few incredibly important risks that you should be aware of before treating your pet with Atopica (or any conventional allergy medication). For many pet owners, the potential adverse reactions associated with the medication far outweigh the possible benefits. Let's get to it! 

What is Atopica | Cyclosporine

Atopica is a popular brand name for the drug cyclosporine. It is an oral medication that is typically prescribed to treat the symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs and cats. It can also be used for other immune system disorders in the body. Throughout the article, we will use the terms interchangeably in an effort to get our readers accustomed to both.Atopica

What is Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats 

Now, before we cover everything that you should know about Atopica, it is important to understand exactly what it is used for: the treatment of atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis is defined as skin inflammation and typically presents as red, inflamed, swollen, and irritated patches of skin. The skin affected by dermatitis may blister, scab, ooze, or flake off. It can be incredibly itchy and painful for your furry companion and may cause them to excessively scratch and lick the area. The chronic inflammation is most commonly caused by environmental allergens that lead to an allergic reaction.

While dermatitis may not seem like a serious health issue, it can lead to the development of secondary problems. For instance, the constant scratching and itching can ultimately cause the skin to break, bacterial infections to develop, and even permanent scarring. Therefore, understanding the clinical signs of dermatitis and treating the condition appropriately is imperative. 

Dermatitis & Allergy Symptoms 

Just like people, cats and dogs can also suffer from allergies and trust us when we say, it's no fun for them. The constant itchiness and irritation are enough to drive them crazy. Therefore, pet owners must ensure they are doing all that they can to prevent and relieve their fur baby's discomfort. Of course, in some cases, dermatitis isn't entirely avoidable. However, by having a thorough understanding of the symptoms, pet owners can treat the skin condition before it worsens. 

Persistent Itching and Scratching 

The most common symptoms of dermatitis in dogs and cats are persistent itching and scratching. When dermatitis progresses, these symptoms will not go unnoticed. Owners may also find their pet rubbing against furniture or walls to help ease the itch if their skin irritation is in a hard to reach area. 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that itching and scratching doesn't seem like that big of a deal. Unfortunately, they are. You see, the non-stop itching can quickly lead to abrasions and cuts. These open wounds are a breeding ground for the development of bacterial infections, particularly since the itching and licking will continue.

Atopica helps dog allergies


This brings us to the next symptom: licking. If you suspect your pet is suffering from dermatitis, be sure to check their fur for wet spots. Licking of the feet and in between the toe pads is a classic sign of atopic dermatitis. Again, while licking may not seem to be a troubling issue, persistent licking often leads to the development of hot spots and sores. Hot spots (pyotraumatic dermatitis) are no laughing matter. They can develop seemingly overnight and some can get quite large and be difficult to treat. 

Physical Symptoms 

Additionally, pet owners will likely find physical symptoms of skin irritations such as redness, bumps, rashes, and dry, flaky skin. These symptoms will typically be accompanied by the aforementioned clinical signs of dermatitis. 

Where to Look for Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis

Dermatitis can develop anywhere on the body, but certain areas are more prone to the skin condition. Pet owners may first notice that their dog or cat is scratching their face or licking their paws more than usual. Additional areas to take note of include: 

  • Ears
  • Muzzle
  • Around their eyes
  • In between their toes
  • Underarms
  • Ventral chest and abdomen
  • Groin
  • Perianal region
  • Wrists
  • Ankles

Causes of Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats

There are many reasons for animals to itch including parasites, allergies, and infections. One of the most common causes of dermatitis in dogs and cats is exposure to environmental allergens. In order to prevent dermatitis, it is important for pet owners to have an understanding of what may be causing it, and then limit exposure to the initial cause. 

Environmental (Atopy)

As we previously mentioned, most cases of dermatitis are a result of environmental allergies. We likely don't have to tell you that cats and dogs are both highly sensitive and can be affected by allergies just like their owners. Most commonly, allergens like mold, pollen (grass, tree, weed, or flower pollen), and dust are the main culprits of environmental allergens. However, they are far from being the only elements that can lead to dermatitis. 

The skin condition can also develop from the following environmental causes: 

  • Smoke (from cigarettes, fires, etc.)
  • Cleaning products (including many household cleaning products... even the organic ones)
  • Plastic and rubber materials
  • Certain shampoos and soaps
  • Perfumes

    atopica helps cat allergies

    A good way to think of it is that if it's affecting you, it's likely affecting your pet. While not all environmental allergens can be avoided, pet owners can limit exposure, particularly if they pinpoint the exact cause of their pet's irritation. 

    Environmental allergies are usually first noticed between the ages of 1 to 3 years old. They can be seen more during certain times of the year such as spring time when flowers and trees are in bloom. If you are finding yourself needing an allergy medication, be sure to keep a close eye on your pet's skin. 

    Food Allergies 

    Dermatitis can also develop due to food allergies. Food allergies can be one of the most itchy conditions in dogs in cats. The pet’s immune system may see the protein or other substance in the diet as foreign invaders. Food allergies develop over time, so your pet can be allergic to food that they have been on for years. It can be seen in young puppies or in dogs around 5 years of age or older. 

      Itching is usually seen around the face, feet and anal area. Recurrent ear infections may also be a sign of a food allergy. Itching is typically non-seasonal and does not respond to steroids or other medications. About 30% of dogs will also have gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. 

    Pinpointing your pet's food allergy can be a long, challenging process. With that said, we want to stress that it is entirely worth it. Continuing to feed your cat or dog food that they are allergic to can ultimately result in severe gastrointestinal inflammation and chronic stomach issues. Again, when any health condition can be avoided, it absolutely should be. 

    Flea Allergies 

    Additionally, dermatitis can result from flea allergies. A single flea bite can leave your dog or cat itching for weeks, and fleas rarely only bite once. This form of dermatitis typically causes irritation near the base of the animal's tail, but can develop anywhere. This is yet another cause that can be prevented with the appropriate lifestyle changes. We'll discuss more about prevention shortly. 

    Contact Allergies

    Another cause of dermatitis in dogs and cats is contact exposure to allergens. For instance, certain fabrics can cause an allergic reaction and the development of severe skin irritation. If you notice your cat or dog is itching more than usual, consider whether you have made any changes to the things they come in contact with on a regular basis. Did you change the laundry detergent you use to wash their bedding? Did you switch shampoos? Luckily, once the cause is pinpointed the substance can be avoided. 

    How Does Atopica Work

    Now that you have a solid understanding of what Atopica is formulated to treat, let's dive into how exactly it works. 

    In many cases, allergic reactions are the result of a false alarm. The body is triggered by something it believes to be harmful and reacts accordingly. However, in terms of allergens like grass or blooming flowers, the body is reacting to something that isn't actually a threat. 

    Atopica is an immunosuppressant. In other words, it suppresses the response to these foreign "threats" that aren't actually dangerous. Vets commonly prescribe the medication to relieve symptoms of canine and feline allergic dermatitis. 

    Benefits of Atopica for Cats and Dogs

    Before we cover the risks (and there are many) of Atopica, we want to state that for some pets, the medication certainly has its benefits. Some dogs and cats find significant relief with using Atopica. Additionally, unlike other allergy medications, Atopica is not a steroid and, therefore, doesn't have the associated side effects of steroidal drugs. 

    Cyclosporine Side Effects

    Without knowing the associated side effects of Atopica, it doesn't seem like such a bad choice. Providing relief for your pet's allergic reactions is something that most owners want to sign up for straight away. However, this is where the trouble starts. You see, Atopica comes with a laundry list of potential adverse reactions that many pet owners are unaware of. Once understanding the side effects, many pet owners may feel the potential harm outweighs the benefits. 

    The most common side effect with Atopica is gastrointestinal upset, which may include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. As much as ⅓ of dogs may experience GI upset when beginning this medication. Atopica is meant to be given on an empty stomach for dogs, but it can be given with food initially to diminish these side effects. Other options such as starting at a lower initial dose or freezing the capsules have also been shown to help with nausea and vomiting. 

    Other less common side effects include:

    • Kidney failure
    • Hypertension
    • Weight loss
    • Tremors
    • Headaches
    • Swollen bleeding gums
    • Gingival Hyperplasia (overgrowth of gums)
    • Development of cancer
    • Easy bruising
    • Hearing problems
    • Lethargy and muscle weakness 
    • Yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice)
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Swollen glands
    • Immune suppression
    • Dizziness and lack of coordination
    • Changes in vision

    Liver and kidney toxicity are generally seen at very high concentrations of cyclosporine in the blood. Long term use, especially when given with other immunosuppressants, may predispose the pet to develop cancer. It should not be used in patients with pre-existing liver or kidney disease and cancers. 

    Atopica for Cats and Dogs: Dosage

    Speaking of dosage, it is imperative that pet owners give the exact dose that their vet prescribes. NEVER increase the dosage without consulting with your veterinarian. If the aforementioned side effects can occur with the correct dose, just imagine what can happen if an overdose occurs. 

    Additionally, it is important to not miss a dose. If you do accidentally miss a dosage, be sure to give the medication as soon as you can. However, never double up on a dose! Again, this can cause an immediate overdose. 

    The appropriate Atopica dose will be determined by your veterinarian based on your pet's body weight. It is generally started at once daily for at least a month and then tapered to the lowest effective dose (typically twice a week). It is not for acute allergy flare-ups, but meant to be given long-term. 

    Additional Precautions of Allergy Medicine for Dogs

    First and foremost, every single conventional medication comes with potential adverse reactions. However, when it comes to allergy medications, there are even more precautions to be aware of. Most allergy medications are immune-suppressing. The immune-suppressing effects are how these drugs are able to prevent the body from reacting. However, they also cause the body to increase susceptibility to infection and diseases. Therefore, if you choose to use a conventional allergy medicine, it is imperative to closely monitor your dog's overall health in order to prevent the development of secondary illnesses. As with any long-term medication, monitoring your pet’s blood levels every 6 months is recommended in order to catch any changes in organ function early. 

    Additionally, the following dogs should never be given allergy medications as they can cause irreversible damage: 

    • Breeding dogs
    • Pregnant dogs
    • Lactating dogs

      Atopica is not approved for lactating dogs

      It's no surprise as to why so many dog owners are actively seeking an alternative to drugs like Atopica. The risks are not only scary, but many are irreversible. Sure, your dog may no longer suffer from itchy skin, but are you willing to jeopardize the health of their vital organs? It really makes you think twice. 

      Additional Precautions of Atopica for Cats

      The use of Atopica in cats comes with even more precautions to be aware of. First, Atopica should never be given to cats with a history of malignant disorders, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection, or feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Toxoplasma antibody titers are also recommended prior to starting Atopica, as this infectious organism can encyst subclinically in the muscle and may be reactivated with cyclosporine usage.  Like in dogs, the immune-suppressing effects of Atopica make felines more susceptible to infections and other diseases. The drug also makes cats less responsive to vaccinations and at a higher risk of developing neoplasia.

      Additionally, using Atopica consistently can result in severe weight loss and the development of conditions like hepatic lipidosis. Therefore, regular weigh-ins are a necessary part of overall health monitoring. 

      Furthermore, Atopica can cause even more troubles for cats with pre-existing kidney problems. Therefore, cats with diabetes mellitus or renal insufficiency should not take the drug. It is imperative that your veterinarian has a thorough understanding of your cat's medical history prior to prescribing any medication, but especially one that can have such harsh side effects. 

      Dermatitis Prevention 

      As we previously mentioned, not all dermatitis can be completely prevented, but some forms can be. Whenever possible, pet owners must ensure that they are doing all they can to prevent the skin condition and, therefore, prevent the need for a medication like Atopica. 

      Limiting Exposure to Allergens

      Perhaps the best way to prevent dermatitis is by limiting exposure to environmental allergens. This includes things like smoke, pollen, pesticides, herbicides, and household cleaners. We're not suggesting that you must completely eliminate these things, but even limiting your pet's exposure to them can make a huge difference. 

      Weekly bathing removes allergens from the fur and may be helpful in reducing exposure. Also washing bedding regularly and avoiding stuffed toys can minimize exposure to dust mites. Remove the pet from the area when vacuuming or dusting or when the lawn is being mowed.

      Additionally, it is imperative that pet owners determine whether a food allergy is to blame and make the appropriate dietary changes if so. As we discussed, continued exposure to a food they are allergic to will ultimately cause severe, chronic gastrointestinal inflammation and can lead to secondary health issues. 

      Flea & Tick Preventative

      Next, pet owners should be aware of whether their dog or cat is at risk of fleas and/or tick bites. Talk to your veterinarian regarding whether a flea and tick preventative medication is a necessary step to take to prevent the development of dermatitis. It is also important to not over-medicate and understand whether the medication is only necessary during certain months. 

      Staying Alert 

      Finally, by staying alert and understanding the symptoms of dermatitis, pet owners can prevent the condition from worsening to a stage where a conventional medication may be necessary. Look for signs such as itching, scratching, licking, damp fur, vomiting, and diarrhea. None of these should be considered "normal." It is imperative that the pet owner gets to the bottom of what is causing the symptoms to develop and work to effectively relieve it.

      atopica for dogs and cats

      Atopica for Cats and Dogs: A Final Thought

      When all is said and done, we can all agree that allergies and subsequent allergic reactions are no fun for anyone. Sadly, your fur babies aren't exactly able to tell you that they aren't feeling their best, but their skin can certainly show you. If you recognize that your cat or dog is experiencing chronic atopic dermatitis, try not to panic. There is relief in sight and are several newer forms of treatment (including Apoquel and Cytopoint for dogs) which prove to have positive, effective results. However, we urge our readers to think twice before administering a medication like Atopica. 

      From all of us at Honest Paws, we hope that your fur baby feels better soon! 


      Jennifer Dempsey, DVM

      Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) 

      She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  

      Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

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