Many dogs have skin allergies and other conditions that require the use of corticosteroids. These are wonderful drugs that have many uses, but corticosteroid side effects can be a problem in both the short and long term. Corticosteroid side effects are especially problematic with long-term use of the drugs.
What Are Corticosteroids
Corticosteroids are a class of drug used to alleviate inflammation due to a variety of issues. They are frequently used with dogs who have skin issues to reduce swelling of the skin. They are also used to decrease swelling in arthritic or injured joints. In addition, they are used in high dosages for immunosuppreseent therapy.
Corticosteroid Side Effects
The side effects of corticosteroids are best broken down into short-term and long-term categories. Short-term corticosteroid side effects are mostly inconveniences, however long-term side effects must be taken seriously when deciding if long-term corticosteroid usage is right for your dog.
Short-Term Corticosteroid Side Effects
Although the majority of short-term corticosteroid side effects are nuisances, there are a couple that should be monitored. It’s important for your vet to test your dog’s blood sugar levels and possibly do an A1c test to determine if your dog is diabetic or pre-diabetic, as corticosteroids can cause a pre-diabetic dog to descend into full-on diabetes.
Short-term side effects of corticosteroids:
- Polydipsia and polyuria (increased thirst and urination)
- Polyphagia (increased hunger)
- Excessive panting
- Lethargy (general loss of energy)
- Development or worsening of infections
- Vomiting or nausea (rare)
- Development of Diabetes
When using corticosteroids in the short-term, be on the lookout for possible infection, vomiting, or the signs of diabetes. Watching for infection and diabetes can be particularly difficult, because steroid usage can cause symptoms that mimic diabetes symptoms such as polydipsia, polyuria, and polyphagia. In addition, watching for infection can be worrisome as well, because one of the signs of a hidden infection can be lethargy. In general, if your dog is on corticosteroids and something seems off, take them in to your vet as soon as possible.
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Long-Term Corticosteroid Side Effects
Long-term use of corticosteroids can cause side effects that are far more serious than their short-term counterparts. In general, vets try to avoid long-term steroid usage whenever possible, but there are cases where it is required.
Long-term side effects of corticosteroids:
- New or worsening UTIs: In up to 30% of patients, new or worsening UTIs (urinary tract infections) appear. Corticosteroids suppress the immune system, which can lead to an increased propensity to develop infection. Dog’s with a history of UTIs will not show the normal symptoms, because the pain of swelling will be gone due to the anti-inflammatory action of the steroids. Regular urine cultures are advised.
- Changes in skin and hair coat: Long-term use of corticosteroids can cause thin skin, blackheads, an a poor or thin coat.
- Poor wound healing: Corticosteroids suppress the body’s ability to heal.
- Obesity: Due to polyphagia.
- Muscle weakness: This is due to protein catabolism (breakdown) caused by long-term corticosteroid use.
- Increased risk of opportunistic or secondary bacterial infections: Again, this is due to the immunosuppressent properties of the drug.
- Increased risk of fungal infections: Also due to immune system suppression.
- Development of adult onset demodectic mange: Due to immune system suppression.
- Development of diabetes
As you can see, the majority of long-term corticosteroid side effects are due to the immunosuppressent properties of the drug. For this reason, it is imperative that you have regular blood and urine tests to monitor for any changes in your dog’s body due to steroid usage. In many cases, a six month workup is advised.
Corticosteroids are a Necessary Evil
Corticosteroid side effects are no joke. It’s always better to limit the use of steroids as much as possible, but there are some cases where you just can’t do that. In severe cases of arthritis, skin problems, or autoimmune disorders, the benefits of long-term corticosteroid use outweigh the risks.
If your dog needs long-term corticosteroid therapy, discuss all of the benefits as well as the risks. Corticosteroid side effects can indeed be frightening, but with proper monitoring, those side effects can be minimized or avoided. Always let your vet be your guide.