Corticosteroids are a class of medicines related to cortisone. Cortisone is a naturally occurring hormone.
Corticosteroids should not be confused with anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids promote body and muscle growth. Corticosteroids are used in pets to treat inflammation, allergies, itching, immune system irregularities, pain, back or spinal trauma, and eye, ear, or skin problems.
Commonly used corticosteroids include prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone, triamcinolone, and methylprednisolone. All of these medicines have similar uses and side effects.
Corticosteroids are extremely useful in veterinary medicine. However, they are potent medications. They must be used carefully to avoid side effects.
Corticosteroids often are given at high doses during the start of treatment. The dose is usually reduced over time to the minimum effective level.
Corticosteroids are most frequently administered as oral pills or liquid suspensions. Injectable varieties are used commonly in veterinary hospitals. Corticosteroids can be compounded into gels that are absorbed through the skin.
Corticosteroids are common ingredients in topical, otic (ear), and ophthalmic (eye) medications.
Cats are less susceptible to the side effects of corticosteroids than are dogs. Nonetheless, in cats and dogs the side effects of corticosteroids include:
- Increased thirst
- Increased urination, possibly leading to house soiling (cats, dogs)
- Increased appetite
- Panting (especially in dogs)
- Weight gain
- Changes to hair coat
- Increased susceptibility to infections
- Rarely, gastrointestinal upset (diarrhea, vomiting, or lack of appetite)
- Behavioral changes such as lethargy or aggression
Humans who take corticosteroids frequently complain of psychological side effects. These are not reported in pets. However, behavioral changes such as those listed above are not uncommon.
Long-term or heavy use of corticosteroids can lead to severe health problems including:
- Diabetes mellitus (known simply as diabetes) in both cats and dogs
- Cushing’s disease
- Liver damage
- Gastrointestinal ulcers (especially if corticosteroids are combined with other types of anti-inflammatory medications)
It should be noted that short-term use of corticosteroids very rarely leads to side effects or adverse health consequences.
Despite the potential for adverse effects, in many cases the benefits of corticosteroids outweigh the risks. There are many syndromes for which corticosteroids are the only effective treatment.
Pets that take corticosteroids should be monitored for improvement of symptoms. They also should be monitored for side effects. Contact your veterinarian immediately if side effects occur or are suspected.
Pets on long-term courses of corticosteroids should undergo regular blood and urine testing.
Because corticosteroids mimic naturally occurring hormones, suddenly discontinuing any medication in this class of drugs can lead to serious symptoms of withdrawal. Do not change or discontinue your pet’s regimen of any corticosteroid without consulting a veterinarian.
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The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.