Diseases Of The Endocrine System

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

The endocrine system comprises two glandular systems, the exocrine and the endocrine glands. The exocrine glands have external secretions, such as tears, sweat and digestive enzymes. The endocrine system secretes hormones that are delivered to specific parts of the body to aid in many body functions. A full discussion of the endocrine system would take volumes. The endocrine system, in other words, is a complex and vital part of the working of the body. If the system breaks down in any way, it can result in ill health that is life threatening. We are primarily concerned with the diseases that occur with some frequency in Bichons Frises.

There are four diseases that are found often enough in Bichons to warrant the owner’s familiarity with these conditions. They are pancreatitis, diabetes mellitus, Cushing’s disease (or Cushing’s Syndrome) and hypothyroidism. Most of these are diseases found in the older animal but some are being diagnosed in very young Bichons. It is also notable that once one of these conditions is diagnosed, there appears to be a very good chance that another will eventually develop. This is because of the working relationship of the secretions of the endocrine glands.

The pancreas provides digestive enzymes and also makes insulin for the metabolism of sugar. Pancreatitis can occur as a mild and/or chronic condition or as an acute pancreatitis, which is immediately life threatening. The dog is typically overweight, gets little exercise and has a high fat diet, often including table food. Ingestion of certain drugs or surgery can precipitate the condition in a dog prone to this disease. Symptoms include vomiting, possibly diarrhea, abdominal pain, and the appearance of being very sick, which he is. Seizures may occur and this dog needs prompt medical attention.

Diabetes mellitus occurs when the manufacture of insulin by the pancreas is inadequate. Without insulin to utilize the sugar in the body, excess sugar spills over into the blood and urine and the kidneys increase activity. The owner may first note that the dog is drinking and urinating with greater frequency and losing weight even though the dog is eating well. Eventually ketones (acids) are formed in the blood stream and a condition called ketoacidosis occurs. The breath becomes sweet smelling with an acetone odor, the dog begins to pant and may have labored breathing. The next event will be a diabetic coma if the condition is not treated quickly. Again a seizure may occur. Diabetic coma is an extreme emergency. Lifelong treatment with insulin injections can control the diabetes and frequent monitoring of the blood sugar will be a part of the treatment plan.

Cushing’s syndrome has been found in Bichons as young as 6 years, but is primarily a disease of older dogs. The symptoms are similar to many other illnesses and specific diagnostic tests are needed to determine presence of Cushing’s. The symptoms most often noted are lethargy, panting, odd behaviors not previously noticed in the dog, excessive thirst and frequent urination, obesity and especially an enlarged abdomen, thinning hair coat and change in sleep habits. There are many other signs and all of these are also signs of other diseases. It is important that the proper blood tests be done to insure correct diagnosis. Treatment involves potent drugs and monitoring blood values is an essential part of the treatment to avoid complications.

Hypothyroidism is an inadequate production of thyroid hormone or destruction of the thyroid hormone by autoantibodies and affects the body by slowing down metabolism. Lethargy, obesity, erratic heat cycles in the female and thinning of the hair coat may be signs. The dog seems not to be mentally as alert and there may be bald patches in the coat along with a darkening of the skin. Symptoms develop slowly and a blood test is required to make proper diagnosis. The dog will require medication to supplement or replace hormone not being produced. It is important to note these changes to the skin and hair coat and to insure the dog is not misdiagnosed as having allergies.

You will by now realize that these diseases all share symptoms as well as sharing a basis in an unhealthy endocrine system. All are treatable but all can have life threatening effects if they are neglected. Some veterinarians almost expect their older Bichon clients to develop Cushing’s and it is possible that any dog with any of these maladies will develop one or more of the other problems. Clearly the sooner diagnosed and treated, the better.

Of the four mentioned, reports of hypothyroidism come to the health committee less often than the other three and it is quite likely that the Bichon has allergies concurrent with the hypothyroid condition, confusing both owner and veterinarian. Pancreatitis can occur in a dog with a fairly healthy but overweight body and early treatment may lead to no recurrence with proper diet and a change in life style. The chronic form may necessitate special enzyme therapy. Diabetes and Cushing’s are lifelong health issues and treatment will continue as long as the dog lives. With both, the medications that treat them have dangerous side effects if not administered properly.

Statistics would indicate that a very low percentage of Bichons have any of these health issues but they show up often enough that some veterinarians are on the lookout for any or all them in older Bichons. Owners of older Bichons would be advised to have semiannual checkups and to be on the lookout for any indications of a change in the behavior or vitality as a sign of declining health. With some healthy Bichons living as long as eighteen and older, it is a shame to lose one in mid-life to any disease.

Research for this article includes Merck Manual, Dog Owners Veterinary Handbook and numerous medical and veterinary sources. It has been reviewed for accuracy by Joanne Baldwin DVM
Dogs, Diet, and Disease: An Owner’s Guide to Diabetes Mellitus, Pancreatitis, Cushing’s Disease, and More by Caroline D. Levin RN