So you’ve heard steroids for your pets are “bad.”
You Google “steroids and pets” and find websites (some written by veterinarians) using words such as “extremely powerful drugs,” “over-prescribed” and “very serious side effects.”
But what if your pet has itchy paws or diarrhea or sore gums — things for which vets often prescribe steroids?
As a vet myself, I’m a big believer in explaining the pros and cons of treatment options to my clients. But leaving aside poor communication as a separate matter, let’s look at steroids in pets: when steroid use is necessary, the side effects and how to use steroids safely.
What Are Steroids?
Steroids are naturally occurring substances the body makes for itself. They are essential to health and well-being.
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 pet temporary “euphoric” effects, where they feel fantastic and eat better.
Because not eating can cause problems for your pet, there’s an argument for a quick fix (with a jab of steroid) to prevent more serious complications from developing.
Why Vets Prescribe Steroids
Steroids reduce inflammation (for skin allergies; read “itchiness”). They also calm the immune system.
The latter may sound like a bad thing if it means switching off defenses against infection; however, in autoimmune diseases, the immune system becomes the body’s own worst enemy.
Conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, pemphigus, sterile meningitis, rheumatoid arthritis and AIHA (autoimmune hemolytic anemia) are all the result of a faulty immune system that attacks its own tissue. Using steroids to switch off this reaction is potentially life-saving.
Feeling skeptical? Then let’s consider a world without steroids, which exists in a condition called Addison’s disease (rare in cats).
The body needs to produce steroid — it helps the body cope at times of stress. Without steroid (such as occurs with Addisonsian pets), even a slight change in daily routine can lead to muscle tremors and weakness, diarrhea and even collapse, coma and death.
Treating Cats With Steroids
So why do steroids have such a bad reputation when it comes to treating cats?
One cause is 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.
Cats are more resistant than dogs or people to the long-term use of steroids. But 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 cats)
- 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 one of these high-risk groups for diabetes:
- Overweight cats
- Older female cats
- Using long-term steroids, especially depot steroid injections
Treating Dogs With Steroids
Are steroids safe for dogs?
Any drug, even the humble aspirin, has potential side effects. For dogs, steroids’ side effects can be immediately obvious in the short term and also cause long-term problems.
- Increased thirst: The patient drinks more, their bladder fills more often and so they need to pee more often.
- Urinary accidents.
- Increased appetite: The dog “thinks” they’re hungry (leading to food obsession), but they don’t actually need more calories. This leads to weight gain.
- Risk of infection: Because steroids down-regulate the immune system, there’s a greater risk of catching infections.
- Inducing disease: High doses or long-term use can induce other health problems, such as diabetes or Cushing’s disease.
When overused or used incorrectly, steroids can generate unpleasant knock-on effects. More responsible usage is what’s required.
Listen to this vet talk about why steroids are used to help ailing pets:
Responsible Steroid Use and Your Pet
We all want your pet to be fit, well and happy.
So here’s how to use steroids responsibly, with minimum risk to your cat or dog.
- 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.
- Start early with the lowest effective dose: Giving a low dose stops the inflammatory cycle, which ultimately means lower doses for shorter times.
- 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 pet needs long-term medication, then tablets are better. Then you can stop them (under your vet’s guidance) if side effects occur. 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) to reduce the risk of stomach ulcer formation.
- Don’t combine meds: Always speak to your vet before giving another medication in addition to steroids.
- Alternate-day therapy: Also, once the pet is stable, speak to the vet about dosing every other day. There are ways of doing this that give the pet the full anti-inflammatory benefit while giving their body a “rest day” to process the steroid.
Final Thoughts: Are Steroids Safe for Cats and Dogs?
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.
- “The Challenge of Long-term Steroids for Cats.” CatWatch, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Feline Health Center. Jan. 9, 2017. https://www.catwatchnewsletter.com/features/the-challenge-of-long-term-steroids-for-cats/.
- Hunter, Tammy, DVM, and Ernest Ward, DVM. “Steroid Treatment: Effects in Cats.” VCA Hospitals. 2018. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/steroid-treatment-long-term-effects-in-cats.
- Hunter, Tammy, DVM, and Ernest Ward, DVM. “Steroid Treatment: Effects in Dogs.” VCA Hospitals. 2018. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/steroid-treatment-long-term-effects-in-dogs.
- Gollakner, Rania, DVM. “Prednisolone/Prednisone.” VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/prednisoloneprednisone.
- Brooks, Wendy, DVM, DABVP. “Steroid Use in Dogs and Cats.” Veterinary Partner. July 2, 2019. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4952031.
- Mason, Doug, DVM, DVSC, DACVIM. “Prednisone Therapy in Dogs and Cats.” Veterinary Emergency Clinic Internal Medicine News. January 2012. http://vectoronto.com/content/uploads/2012/12/InternalMedicineNews4.pdf.