All you need to know about steroids for dogs

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Steroids or Corticosteroids or cortisones are a class of steroid hormones that are produced in the adrenal glands. Steroids perform many activities in a dog’s body. Steroids manage stress response, immune system response, control of inflammation, nutrient metabolism, and maintenance of blood electrolyte levels.

Why do veterinarians prescribe steroids?

Steroids are prescribed primarily for their anti-inflammatory properties. In high doses, they act as immunosuppressants. Prescribed steroids are usually synthetic and are usually much more potent than naturally occurring steroids. They also tend to last much longer. Steroids are also used to treat –

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Eye disease
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • Heat stroke
  • Infections
  • Immune-mediated disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung disease
  • Neurologic/central nervous system disorders
  • Termination of pregnancy
  • Shock
  • Skin disease
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Trauma

What are the short-term side effects?

A dog may experience any or all of these effects shortly after taking steroids. The effects range based on the steroid used and the dosage administered. The effects are –

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Increased hunger
  • Panting
  • General loss of energy
  • Development or worsening of infections (especially bacterial skin infections)
  • Vomiting or nausea (less common)

Some dogs can also become diabetic with the use of steroids. However, diabetes usually resolves itself once the dog stops taking steroids. Many side effects can also be eliminated by simply lowering the dosage or frequency of the steroids.

What are the long-term effects?

When steroids are used for longer than 3 to 4 months, side effects become concerning. The most common long-term side effects are –

  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)
  • Development of thin skin, blackheads, and a poor or thin hair coat
  • Poor wound healing ability
  • Development of obesity due to increased hunger
  • Muscle weakness secondary to protein catabolism (breakdown)
  • Development of hard plaques or spots on the skin called calcinosis cutis. These plaques are the result of calcium deposition in the skin.
  • Increased susceptibility to opportunistic or secondary bacterial infections
  • Increased susceptibility to fungal infections (especially of the nasal cavity) and
  • Development of adult-onset demodectic mange
  • Predisposition to diabetes mellitus

Cushing’s disease is always a possibility when a dog is administered a lot of steroids. Signs of Cushing’s disease include increased thirst as well as urination, an increase in UTI’s and skin and ear infections, a “pot-bellied” appearance, thinning skin and hair loss.

How can you reduce the risk of any side effects?

  • Unless specified by your vet, avoid using steroids on a daily basis. Only life-threatening immune-mediated diseases require long-term daily steroid use.
  • Other treatment options should be looked at if your dog requires more than three-four months of steroid usage.
  • Dogs on long-term corticosteroids should be monitored with quarterly examinations and with urine cultures and blood tests every six months.

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