When I refer to “steroid therapy,” I’m not talking about anabolic steroids. Those are a type of illegal steroid used by some athletes to improve performance or enhance weight and muscle mass.
The class of steroids I want to discuss today are catabolic steroids. These drugs are very commonly used in veterinary medicine, especially during the spring and summer months, for a variety of reasons.
In my opinion steroids are wildly overprescribed to companion animals. These are incredibly powerful drugs which are not well understood, and they can come with some very dangerous side effects.
Your Pet’s Naturally Occurring Steroids
There are two primary types of steroids secreted by an animal’s adrenal glands.
The first category of naturally occurring steroids is the mineralocorticoids, which are produced in the outside layer of your pet’s adrenal gland. Mineralocorticoids secrete a substance called aldosterone, which regulates electrolytes.
The second and primary type of steroid produced by the adrenals is the glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids, primarily cortisol, are very potent hormones that influence your pet’s metabolism and immune function.
Mimics of these types of steroids are the ones most often prescribed in veterinary practices.
There are a number of synthetically produced glucocorticoids available. They typically have names ending in “-sone” -- names like prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone and betamethasone.
All these drugs are members of the family of synthetically produced steroids that are prescribed for pets, either orally in a pill or tablet, or through injection.
Reasons for Steroid Therapy
Pets prescribed steroids usually have one of three health-related problems, the most common of which is inflammation.
The least common reason your pet might end up on glucocorticoids is to treat an emergency. If, for example, your dog is hit by a car and there is acute brain swelling as a result, the ER doctor might prescribe steroids to very quickly manage the inflammation caused by the traumatic injury. This is an example of why we are all thankful we have steroids available to us: for saving pets' lives.
The vet might also give steroids to jumpstart your pet’s circulatory system to prevent her from going into shock.
Another less common reason for steroid use in veterinary medicine is to intentionally suppress an animal’s immune system to treat an autoimmune disorder.
If your pet’s immune system gets amped up to the point of attacking itself, your dog or cat has what is called an immune-mediated or autoimmune disease. In such cases, steroids are often prescribed in very high doses to shut the immune system down entirely. The hope is that at the end of the steroid therapy, the immune system will reset itself to a balanced state.
Without a doubt, the most common reason for putting a pet on steroids is to manage an inflammatory condition. If your dog or cat is dealing with an “-itis” like:
- Dermatitis (inflammation of the skin)
- Enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine)
- Colitis (inflammation of the colon)
… he could quite likely be given steroids for the inflammation.
Pets with any of the conditions that come under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel disease, or inflammatory bowel syndrome, often end up on steroids.
If your pet has dermatitis, allergies, inflamed gums or eyes, asthma, or upper respiratory symptoms, she could be put on steroid therapy.
Even some types of cancer – lymphoma and mast cell cancer, for instance – create massive inflammation and veterinarians routinely prescribe steroids for these diseases.
Why Steroid Therapy Can Be a Really Bad Idea
Two words: side effects.
The biggest downside to steroids is they turn your pet’s immune system off. When the immune system is shut down, your dog or cat will have a very hard time fighting secondary infections.
Other side effects of steroid therapy can include:
- Increased hunger and thirst
- Increased urination
- Gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers
- Hair loss
- A pot belly, which often signals the presence of Cushing’s disease, a terrible condition that is known to result from steroid use
- Blood clots
- Secondary infections
But my greatest concern about overuse of steroids is that the underlying condition causing your pet’s symptoms, which is typically inflammation, is usually left untreated.
Be a Smart Pet Healthcare Consumer
Traditional medicine for both people and animals is about treating symptoms with prescriptions – not treating the cause of those symptoms.
It’s not uncommon for pet owners to be unaware the drug their animal is receiving is a steroid. Vets will frequently refer to a dose of steroids as an “anti-inflammatory shot,” or an “allergy shot,” or an “injection of cortisone.”
If you’re not aware your cat or dog is taking steroids, or you’re not knowledgeable about what the drug can do to your pet’s body, you can end up shocked and distraught at the host of secondary side effects brought on by steroid therapy.
Most disturbing to many pet owners is the discovery that the underlying disease process that created the inflammation is still there.
Suppose your dog suffers during allergy season with symptoms like hot spots, inflamed or irritated skin, or itchy paws. If her vet gives her monthly steroid therapy to control her symptoms, the symptoms may subside but their cause – allergies – is still lurking beneath the surface.
So your pet keeps the underlying condition, in this case an overreaction of her immune system, and she will likely also acquire a host of secondary conditions as side effects of the steroid treatment.
Advocate for Your Pet
First of all, if your pet is currently on steroids, you can’t just stop giving them to him.
If, for example, you’ve just learned that the prednisone you’ve been dosing your cat with is a steroid and you want to get him off the drug, you must taper him off. Call either your regular veterinarian or a holistic vet and ask for guidance on weaning kitty off the drug safely. I strongly recommend you work with an integrative vet (www.ahvma.org) to create a holistic protocol to take the place of steroid therapy before you simply take your pet off of steroids.
The goal is to identify and treat your pet’s underlying condition. You probably know which symptoms the steroid is treating, but the goal should be to cure whatever condition is creating those symptoms.
If your pet has allergies, you need to do your level best to determine what she’s allergic to. Is it the food she eats or something in her environment like a household cleaner? If her skin is inflamed, what’s causing it?
Uncovering allergic triggers can be a tedious, frustrating undertaking – but it is the only way to get to the source of your pet’s problem and eliminate it. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover the allergen right away – some are more obvious than others.
You need to think about everywhere your pet goes, everything he ingests, and everything he touches or that touches him. Sometimes an answer jumps right out at you, other times it can take a long process of elimination to get to the root cause of an allergic response.
Rather than putting your pet on dangerous steroids to alleviate symptoms, work with your veterinarian to get to the underlying issue.
Likewise, if your pet’s immune system is in overdrive, you need to determine what might be unnecessarily stimulating it.
In my veterinary practice, vaccinations are never automatic or routine. The major contributor to an over stimulated immune system is over vaccination. Too many unnecessary vaccines given year in and year out can make your pet’s immune system hyper reactive.
Enter steroid therapy to shut down the immune system and the stage is set for a debilitating or life-threatening disorder to overtake your pet’s health.
Rather than wind up in such a dangerous cycle, the best thing you can do for your beloved furry family member is ask your pet’s veterinarian for titers to identify which, if any, re-vaccinations are necessary each year.
Titering, rather than blindly re-vaccinating for diseases your pet is probably already immune to thanks to her first year puppy or kitten shots, will go a long way toward keeping her immune system healthy throughout her life.
Under certain circumstances, but much less often than the current trend of overuse, steroid therapy for a pet is necessary and advisable.
The key is to ensure your dog or cat isn’t receiving steroid treatment for symptoms, without determining their cause.