Your cat has diarrhea, sore gums or itchy skin. The vet casually mentions giving an anti-inflammatory injection or “something to calm things down.” You think no more about it until a friend reads the invoice and recognizes the injection was a steroid.
You feel confused because you’ve heard steroids are “bad.” You Google “Steroids and cats” and find websites (some written by vets) using words such as “extremely powerful drugs,” “over-prescribed” and “very serious side effects.” Now you’re alarmed and angry, feeling the vet betrayed your trust. This is understandable.
I’m a big believer in treating clients like grownups and explaining the pros and cons of treatment options. But leaving aside poor communication as a separate matter, let’s look at steroids in cats: when steroid use is necessary, their side effects and how to use them safely.
What Are Steroids?
Steroids are naturally occurring substances that the body makes for itself. They are essential to health and well-being. A lack of natural steroids leads to a serious condition called Addison’s disease (which is rare in cats,)
Steroids are potent anti-inflammatories that help down-regulate the immune system, hence their popularity as a tool when the body experiences out-of-control inflammation (such as inflammatory bowel disease) or the immune system is attacking the body (such as rheumatoid arthritis).
Also, short-term use tends to give the cat temporary “euphoric” effects, where they feel fantastic and eat better. Since not eating can cause problems in its own rite, there is an argument for a quick fix (with a jab of steroid) to prevent other more serious complications from developing.
Side Effects and More
Why do steroids have such a bad reputation?
- Overuse: A quick injection of steroid can make a cat feel better fast. Sometimes this is perfectly fine, but other times the steroid is merely treating a symptom, like diarrhea or itchy skin, while the cause (e.g., food allergy or fleas) is still at large.
- Side effects: Cats are more resistant than dogs or people to the long-term use of steroids. However, this doesn’t mean there’s no risk. Most cats experience a psychological side effect and think they’re hungry and thirsty (hence the ravenous appetite and increased drinking).
Other side effects include:
- Stomach ulcers (if given on an empty stomach)
- Cushing’s disease (rare in the cat)
- Sugar diabetes
The current thinking is that if a cat is on the road to developing diabetes, then steroids will boost them over the finish line. Thus it’s good to recognize if your cat is in a “high risk for diabetes” group. These are:
- Overweight cats
- Older female cats
- Using long-term steroids, especially depot steroid injections
Minimizing the Risk to Your Cat
We all want the same thing, which is for your cat to be fit, well and happy. So here’s how to use steroids responsibly, with minimum risk to the cat.
- Reach a diagnosis: Where possible, find and eliminate the underlying cause of the problem. For example, the cat with diarrhea may need a fecal exam, blood tests and an abdo scan. By getting to grips with the underlying cause, the need to use steroids may be eliminated or reduced.
- Balance the risk factors: If you have a fat, elderly female cat, then the reason for giving steroids needs to be more pressing than for a young, slim male cat with a low risk of side effects.
- Tablets rather than injection: A one-off injection is unlikely to cause problems. But if the cat needs long-term medication, then tablets are better. Then you can stop them (under your vet’s guidance) if there are side effects. A depot injection, once given, can’t be taken out again and must run its course.
- Give safely: This means giving with or after food (not on an empty stomach).
- Alternate-day therapy: Also, once the cat is stable, speak to the vet about dosing every other day. There are ways of doing this that give the cat the full anti-inflammatory benefit while giving the cat’s body a “rest day” to process the steroid.
Communication Is Key
Finally, your vet should discuss things like steroids with you. If they don’t volunteer the information, then ask what the medication is, why it’s necessary and what to expect.
No vets worth their stripes mind a person taking an interest in a pet’s welfare, so ask away.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed July 7, 2017.