Cortisone shots for dogs are administered to help manage a variety of conditions affecting dogs including arthritis and allergies. The main purpose is often to correct the immune system's exaggerated response and to reduce inflammation. While cortisone shots for dogs may be effective in treating several conditions in dogs, cortisone may cause a variety of side effects that dog owners need to watch for. If your dog develops any of side effects, report to your vet immediately. Following is information about cortisone shots for dogs from veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec.
What are Cortisone Shots for Dogs?
Hormones are chemicals that occur naturally in the body and are released into the bloodstream by a particular gland or tissue elsewhere in the body. They regulate numerous bodily functions, including growth and responses to stress and illness. Hormonal drugs are similar to natural hormones and have a wide variety of uses. This group of drugs includes corticosteroids, anabolic steroids, sex hormones and thyroid hormones. The most frequently used, and most misunderstood, are corticosteroids.
What are corticosteroids? Natural corticosteroids are life-sustaining hormones produced in the adrenal gland. Corticosteroid drugs are often incorrectly called "steroids" and mistaken for anabolic (bodybuilding) steroids, also often called steroids. Anabolic steroids mimic the anabolic (protein-building) effects of the male hormone testosterone, but their use is not associated with the development of secondary sex characteristics. This group of steroids has been widely abused by human athletes to build strength and stamina, with serious risks to their health.
More accurately speaking, here's what corticosteroid drugs are: the adrenal glands synthesize two types of corticosteroids: 1) glucocorticoids (cortisol) responsible for reducing inflammation through various anti-inflammatory mechanisms and controlling the carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism and 2) mineralocorticoids (aldosterone) responsible for maintaining the total body water and electrolytes in physiological levels, mainly through promoting sodium retention in the kidneys.
In a nutshell, corticosteroids are involved in the regulation of the following bodily functions: stress response, immune system response, inflammation control, nutrient metabolism and blood electrolyte levels maintenance.
Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory agents, and for this reason they are used anti-inflammatory and anti itching drugs. They may be applied topically, as part of treatment for a variety of itchy skin conditions, and may also be injected (for example, under the form of cortisone shots for dogs) into a specific area, such as a joint or tendon, to reduce inflammation in that area.
Taken orally, these drugs treat respiratory disorders by reducing or preventing inflammation in the airways. In addition, corticosteroids can save a dog’s life if the animal is in clinical shock.
Types of Corticosteroid Drugs
There are many different synthetic corticosteroid drugs but one simple rule for their use. The drug of choice should be the least potent, given at the lowest dosage that yields clinical improvement. Almost invariably, the drug used is: prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone and methylprednisolone.
All corticosteroid drugs are absorbed into the bloodstream just as fast by mouth as they are by intramuscular injection. It should also be noted that synthetic corticosteroids are several times more potent than the naturally occurring forms. It goes without saying that their effects also last much longer.
Side Effects of Cortisone for Dogs
First of all, it must be emphasized that, in the majority of cases, the corticosteroid drugs’ benefits outweigh any potential risks. Side effects of corticosteroids are less common in dogs than in people and depend on two important factors: dosage and duration of the treatment. The potential adverse effects associated with corticosteroid drugs use can be categorized as short-term side effects and long-term side effects.
Short term side effects: The side effects that a dog experiences when initially placed on corticosteroids are classified as short-term. The most commonly observed short-term side effects include: increased thirst, increased urination frequency, panting, energy loss and decreased stamina, vomiting or nausea, short-term personality changes (heightened irritability), temporary incontinence – quite common among older dogs, particularly females, temporary diabetes – when put on corticosteroids, pre-diabetic dogs may become diabetic (fortunately the diabetic condition resolves once the treatment is discontinued).
More often than not, the above listed side effects can be significantly reduced or fully eliminated by either lowering the corticosteroid’s dosage or administration frequency. As an alternative, the veterinarian may prescribe a different type of corticosteroid drug. Every organism responds differently to a different type of corticosteroid drug. The goal is to determine the lowest dose of the least potent corticosteroid drug that controls the medical issue while causing the least number of side effects.
Long term side effects: anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive doses of corticosteroid drugs, applied for more than three to four months, are likely to cause long-term side effects. The most commonly observed long-term side effects include: urinary tract infections from steroids occur in up to 30 percent of the patients. Since the corticosteroids suppress both the inflammation and discomfort, patients are not likely to experience the usual symptoms associated with urinary tract infections. The infection can only be diagnosed through urine cultures.
Other side effects seen in long-term use of corticosteroid drugs include:
- Increased appetite followed by weight gain
- Decreased wound healing ability
- Thinning of the skin followed by blackheads development and decreased coat quality
- Increased susceptibility to opportunistic or secondary bacterial and fungal infections as well as parasitic infestations (demodectic mange)
- Muscle weakness due to increased protein breakdown
- Predisposition to diabetes mellitus
- Calcinosis cutis – calcium deposition in the skin which results in development of hard plaques on the skin.
Daily therapeutic doses of corticosteroids given for longer than a month suppress the activity of the adrenal glands. Therefore, the only safe, long-term therapy is administration on alternate days. At higher doses, corticosteroids suppress the immune system.
Dogs receiving high-doses of corticosteroids for a prolonged period of time are at high risk of developing Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is increased activity of the cortisol-producing area of the adrenal gland. When the condition is caused by excessive medical use of corticosteroids it is referred to as iatrogenic Cushing’s disease.
Corticosteroid drugs withdrawal is something else to consider. Fortunately, corticosteroid withdrawal is not as problematic for dogs as it is for humans. Nevertheless, after prolonged used (over one month) the dose should be tapered off over a period of seven to ten days.
" If your dog was injected with the steroid preparation then there is no way to reduce the dosage. Depending on which one was given, this side effect can persist for some time. If it was short-acting, like dexamethasone (azium), then this side effect should go away in a couple of days. If it was a longer acting preparation like Vetalog or DepoMedrol, then this could last for several days to a week or more." Dr. K, veterinarian
Corticosteroids – the Final Verdict
Many dog parents are concerned when their dogs are given corticosteroids. It is true that, in excess, corticosteroids can have damaging side effects and even cause Cushing’s disease. Concern is valid if these drugs are used needlessly or excessively, but is unwarranted when they are used appropriately and therapeutically.
All in all, do not be afraid of the side effects of corticosteroids when these drugs are necessary. Do not hesitate to talk to your trusted vet about any worries you might have.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.