If your dog or cat has been prescribed steroids you might be wondering what they are and what they do. Steroids are one of the most commonly used medications in veterinary medicine, and they have a large range of uses. 

What are steroids?

Steroids (also known as corticosteroids) are hormones naturally produced in the body by small glands called the adrenals. The adrenal glands are located in the abdomen (tummy) above the kidneys. One example of the body’s naturally produced steroid hormones is cortisol. Steroid hormones are essential for life, they are involved in many different processes in the body. Steroids can also be given artificially in medication form to mimic some of these natural processes or to reduce inflammation in the body. 

Reduction of inflammation is the most common reason a steroid will be used as they are a powerful anti-inflammatory. Conditions or diseases which steroids are used to treat include:

  • Allergies such as food or skin allergies
  • Problems with the immune system 
  • Treatment of some cancers
  • Reactions caused by insect stings
  • Eye problems
  • Addison’s disease
  • Anaphylactic reactions (a severe allergic reaction)

What types are available?

The type of steroids which may be prescribed by your vet could include; betamethasone, prednisolone, methylprednisolone, and dexamethasone.

The most frequently prescribed steroid is prednisolone which is mostly given in tablet form. Prednisolone mimics the activity of the naturally occurring hormone cortisol. Prednisolone is more potent than the naturally occurring cortisol. 

When treating some conditions your vet may initiate treatment with an injection of steroid followed on with a course of steroid tablets to be given at home. Steroids are also available in topical form as:

  • Gels (which can be applied to the skin)
  • Creams (which can be applied to the skin)
  • Drops (for eyes or ears)
  • Sprays (which can be applied to the skin) 

Are there any side effects to using steroids?

Steroids are hugely useful drugs, but their use can cause unwanted side effects. Your vet will weigh up the potential for troublesome side effects with the benefits. Steroids may be used as a one-off treatment or can be used on a long-term basis. Common side effects include:

  • An increase in thirst (and therefore an increase in urination) 
  • Increased appetite 
  • Lethargy or low energy
  • Panting

If steroids are needed longer term or are used at higher doses other side effects may become apparent such as:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Weight gain
  • Changes to the skin
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Hair loss
  • Change in shape of the tummy (potbellied appearance)
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea 

If you are concerned about any potential side effects of the steroid treatment prescribed you should consult your vet for advice. Your vet will aim to minimise any side effects experienced by adjustment of the dose if needed. Sometimes if side effects are particularly problematic, additional medications may be added into the treatment plan so a lower dose of steroid could be considered. 

Can all animals have steroids?

Steroids on the whole are a safe and effective treatment which have a broad range of uses. Some cats and dogs can be particularly susceptible to side effects of steroids, in which cases lower doses may be needed. Your pet may be receiving other medications which are not compatible with steroid treatment. It is therefore very important to tell your vet if your pet is currently taking any supplements or medications so any combination of treatments used will be safe for your pet. Pets suffering from diseases such as diabetes mellitus, some infectious diseases, and heart problems may be unsuitable for steroid treatment. Your vet will be able to discuss any concerns regarding the suitability of steroids when treating your pet. 

Once your pet starts receiving steroids it is important to not stop treatment abruptly. Never stop treatment without talking to your vet first. This is because suddenly ending treatment might cause unwanted effects. 

Handling storing and administering steroid medication

When handling your pet’s medication, it is best to wear gloves, or ensure you wash your hands thoroughly to avoid any absorption of the drug yourself. Pregnant owners should not handle steroid treatments. Medications should be stored in cool place out of reach of children. Your vet will advise the best time of day to give the medication. Steroid tablets are usually given with food. 

Steroids are incredibly useful to treat a huge range of diseases and illnesses; in some cases, they are even lifesaving. Side effects are reasonably common, but mostly these are mild. The benefits to their use normally outweigh any side effects. If you have any concerns about the steroid treatment your pet has been prescribed it is always best to discuss this with your vet.