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 Hypothyroidism in Golden Retrievers

Ann F. Hubbs DVM, PhD

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The thyroid gland is a small gland located near around the voice box, or larynx, in the neck. Hormones from the thyroid gland affect the rate of metabolism and temperature control, among other functions. Hypothyroidism, or low concentrations of thyroid hormones, is the most common endocrine disease of dogs, and breeders rate it as one of the most important health conditions of purebred dogs. While published data indicate a prevalence ranging from 1 in 156 dogs to 1 in 500 dogs (Schaer, 2000), it is much more common in some breeds, including Golden Retrievers. GRCA's first breed health survey indicated that over the course of their lives, approximately one in four of our members' Golden Retrievers develop hypothyroidism (Glickman et al., 1998-1999).

Signs and Symptoms

Dogs affected with hypothyroidism can show a number of signs associated with the decrease in thyroid hormones. The most severe cases exhibit a potentially fatal condition known as myxedema coma, with very low body temperature, severe metabolic and heart disturbances, and coma (Henik and Dixon, 2000). However, most cases of hypothyroidism are much more subtle, which can actually delay diagnosis because the signs can be similar to those of several other conditions. Affected dogs often gain weight, and in some cases, the coat may become thin and brittle. The tail is commonly affected and the thinning of tail feathers may replace a Golden Retriever's magnificent plume-like tail with an almost bald tail, a condition commonly called "rat tail". As the disease progresses, the skin tends to accumulate fluid, making it thick; and when the face is affected, dogs can develop a "tragic expression."

Behavior can also be affected. Body temperature may drop causing the dog to seek a warm place to lie down; and in many cases, hypothyroid dogs will be less active than usual. In addition, trainers have reported decreased trainability. In a few cases, dogs have developed sudden behavioral changes, such as becoming "grumpy." In some instances, when hypothyroidism was diagnosed and treated, behavior also improved (Beaver and Huag, 2003).

Dogs with hypothyroidism are also more likely to have other health conditions. Some of these are clearly caused by the lack of thyroid hormone while in other cases the relationship between the different conditions is not as clear (Panciera, 2001). For example, atherosclerosis, which is common in humans, is really pretty rare in dogs. Hypothyroidism changes that - a dog with atherosclerosis is extremely likely to be hypothyroid (Hess ET AL., 2003). Indeed, a high blood cholesterol concentration is one of the most common changes seen in the blood of hypothyroid dogs (Dixon et al., 1999).

Cause and Prevention

Most cases of canine hypothyroidism appear to be caused by infiltrating cells from the immune system -- lymphocytes that enter the thyroid gland in a condition called lymphocytic thyroiditis or autoimmune thyroiditis (Graham et al., 2001). In other cases, there is a loss of functional thyroid tissue for unknown reasons, a condition known as idiopathic thyroid atrophy (Gosselin et al., 1981). Rarely, hypothyroidism can result from a failure of the pituitary, the central gland controlling endocrine function. Inherited errors of metabolism are another rare cause of hypothyroidism (Chastaine et al, 1983; Fyfe et al, 2003). Short term studies indicate that several factors appear to potentially affect thyroid function in dogs, but it is still not clear, which, if any, of these factors, can cause long-term hypothyroidism. For example, while it is well established that many serious diseases of humans and dogs cause lowering of thyroid hormone levels, the thyroid function typically returns to normal once the underlying disease is controlled (deGroot, 1999; Nelson et al., 2001). This is called "nonthyroidal illness syndrome" or "euthyroid sick syndrome," and has no known relationship to the development of clinical hypothyroidism in dogs.

However, some recent studies suggest that certain environmental exposures and genetic predispositions can have a more direct effect on the thyroid gland. For example, at least one study indicates that vaccination increases antibodies against the thyroid hormone precursor, thyroglobulin, in dogs (Scott-Moncrieff et al., 2002). Obviously vaccination is essential for canine and public safety, but additional studies are needed to determine if over-vaccination can contribute to hypothyroidism in susceptible dogs. In addition, there is increasing evidence that neutered dogs and bitches are at increased risk for hypothyroidism ( Panciera DL, 1994; Glickman et al., 1998-1999), as compared to intact animals.

In Beagles, the tendency to develop hypothyroidism is largely inherited (Benjamin et al., 1996). In Doberman Pinshers, a genetically-determined variant in one of the genes affecting the immune system (MHC class II), increases the risk of hypothyroidism (Kennedy et al., 2006). That particular high risk variant is not seen in Golden Retrievers, but the association between the genes of the immune system and hypothyroidism is incompletely investigated in Golden Retrievers. While we do not yet know definitive breeding schemes that are effective in preventing hypothyroidism, the genetic basis in several breeds suggests that the use of affected dogs should be minimized in breeding programs.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The diagnosis of hypothyroidism usually involves a panel of blood tests. Interpretation of these tests can really be quite complex and should be done by a veterinarian, sometimes in consultation with an endocrinologist. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals issues certificates for dogs with normal thyroid function as determined by approved labs following thyroid testing procedures. (More information about these procedures is available online at http://www.offa.org/thyproc.html) However, test results represent only a specific moment in time, and hypothyroidism can develop months or years after a previous normal test. In addition, the AKC Canine Health Foundation is funding several ongoing research studies designed to improve the diagnosis of hypothyroidism. More information about these studies is available online.

Fortunately, most cases of canine hypothyroidism are easily treated, provided the diagnosis is made before the development of secondary conditions such as atherosclerosis. Treatment usually involves daily supplementation with levothyroxine (Soloxine) pills for the life of the dog (Schaer, 2000). Because there are potentially serious consequences to prolonged low or high levels of thyroid hormones, treatment for hypothyroidism should be done under veterinary supervision. The very good news though, is that almost all dogs with hypothyroidism can be successfully treated and remain as treasured companions for a full canine lifespan.

References

Beaver, BV and LI Huag. Canine behaviors associated with hypothyroidism. J Am Animal Hosp Assoc. 2003 Sep-Oct;39(5):431-4.

Benjamin SA, LC Stephens, BF Hamilton, WJ Saunders, AC Lee, GM Angleton, and CH Mallinckrodt. Associations between lymphocytic thyroiditis, hypothyroidism, and thyroid neoplasia in beagles . Vet Pathol. 1996 Sep;33(5):486-94.

Chastain CB, SV McNeel, CL Graham, and SC Pezzanite. Congenital hypothyroidism in a dog due to an iodide organification defect. Am J Vet Res 44: 1257-65, 1983.

De Groot LJ. Dangerous dogmas in medicine: the nonthyroidal illness syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1999 Jan;84(1):151-64

Dixon RM, SW Reid, and CT Mooney. Epidemiological, clinical, haematological and biochemical characteristics of canine hypothyroidism. Vet Rec.1999 Oct 23;145(17):481-7.

Fyfe JC, K Kampschmidt, V Dang, BA Poteet, Q He, C Lowrie, PA Graham, and VM Fetro. Congenital hypothyroidism with goiter in toy fox terriers. J Vet Intern Med. 17: 50-57, 2003.

Glickman L, N Glickman, and R Thorpe. The Golden Retriever Club of America National Health Survey, 1998-1999. Available online at http://www.grca.org/pdf/health/healthsurvey.pdf

Gosselin SJ, CC Capen, and SL Martin. Histologic and ultrastructural evaluation of thyroid lesions associated with hypothyroidism in dogs. Vet Pathol.1981 May;18(3):299-309.

Gosselin SJ, Capen CC, SL Martin, S Krakowka. Autoimmune lymphocytic thyroiditis in dogs. Vet Immunol Immunopathol. 1982 Jan;3(1-2):185-201.

Graham, P.A., R.F. Nachreiner, K.R. Refsal, and A.L. Provencher-Bollinger. Lymphocytic thyroiditis. Vet Clin North Am Small Anima Pract. 2001 Sep;31(5):915-33, vi-vii.

Henik RA and RM Dixon. Intravenous administration of levothyroxine for treatment of suspected myxedema coma complicated by severe hypothermia in a dog. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Mar 1;216(5):713-7, 685.

Hess, RS, PH Kass, and TJ Van Winkle. Association between diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism or hyperadrenocorticism, and atherosclerosis in dogs. J Vet Intern Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;17(4):489-94.

Kennedy LJ, HJ Huson, J Leonard, JM Angles, LE Fox, JW Wojciechowski, C Yuncker, and GM Happ. Association of hypothyroid disease in Doberman Pinscher dogs with a rare major histocompatibility complex DLA class II haplotype. Tissue Antigens 2006 Jan;67(1):53-6.

Nelson, RW. SL Ihle, EC Feldman, and GD Bottoms. Serum free thyroxine concentration in healthy dogs, dogs with hypothyroidism, and euthyroid dogs with concurrent illness. J Am Vet Med Assoc.1991 Apr 15;198(8):1401-7.

Panciera, D.L. Conditions associated with canine hypothyroidism. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2001 Sep;31(5):935-50.

Panciera DL. Hypothyroidism in dogs: 66 cases (1987-1992). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1994 Mar 1;204(5):761-7.

Schaer M. Hypothyroidism in the Dog . Dog Owners and Breeders Symposium, University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine, July 29, 2000.

Scott-Moncrieff JC, J. Azcona-Olivera, N.W. Glickman, L.T. Glickman, H. HogenEsch. Evaluation of antithyroglobulin antibodies after routine vaccination in pet and research dogs.J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002 Aug 15;221(4):515-21.

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