Most people have a limited understanding of the function of steroids in humans, so it's hardly surprising that this confusion extends to how they can be used to help our four-legged friends. With the media dominated with stories of steroid abuse by weightlifters and sportspeople, we automatically assume steroids can only be used for performance enhancement, and that they have certain trademark side effects – namely rage, hair-loss and organ failure.
Medical professionals will know that the steroids that get abused are anabolic steroids and that another group exists called catabolic or corticosteroids. Unlike man-made anabolic steroids (which exists solely to build muscle mass in patients by working on male sex hormones in the body) corticosteroids are related to the hormones produced by your adrenal gland and are used to treat conditions involving inflammation in the body, such as arthritis, lupus, and asthma.
Like humans, dogs also have adrenal glands and also suffer from inflammation and immune disorders. These dogs are prescribed medications like Vetalog, Medrol or Azium – all of which are forms of corticosteroids.
If you are faced with a situation where your dog is prescribed a corticosteroid, know that much of the rules we apply to human healthcare apply here. Your vet should always try to prevent the use of medication where possible with prevention, and should always ‘work up’ to heavy drugs with serious side effects.
Because of a corticosteroid’s tendency to work quickly and provide instant relief, many vets prescribe it as the first line of defence in treating even minor ailments. This is something you should be aware of, as like all drugs, corticosteroids can have serious side effects on your pet as they have an effect on every organ in the body. Side effects range from the minor (increased thirst) to the major (liver failure).
In all likelihood, your pet’s vet is using corticosteroids for a good reason. As a pet owner, it is important to be aware and take an active interest in your pet’s health. You are their advocate when it comes to medical care, and you have every right to ask questions about how they are being treated. If you have any concerns about your pet’s corticosteroid treatment then speak up – a good vet will understand your worries and provide you with peace of mind.