While corticosteroids definitely have their place, steroids are frequently over-prescribed and misused, and can lead to serious health consequences in pets.
Corticosteroids (often referred to as just “steroids”) are among the most commonly prescribed medications in veterinary medicine. They’re also one of the most commonly abused and misused. As a result, dogs and cats are often incorrectly treated for months or even years, with serious side effects, before someone says: “Enough. There must be a better way!”
While many holistic pet owners think corticosteroids are horrible drugs to be avoided at all costs, they’re actually wonderful drugs that can be life-saving – when used at the right dose, for the proper length of time, and for the correct reason. The problem is, corticosteroids are often not used at the right dose, for the proper length of time, or for the correct reason. With rare exceptions (for example, some cancers and immune disorders), there is rarely — if ever — a need for the long-term use of corticosteroids in the treatment of diseases such as arthritis or allergies, since so many natural options work just as well.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to steroids and show how natural therapies can safely and effectively replace them for most pet problems.
Corticosteroids are stress hormones naturally produced by the adrenal glands, under the control of the pituitary gland. If we give a dog or cat corticosteroids, his pituitary gland senses it and his adrenal glands won’t make any more. This shuts down the body’s normal production of a vitally important hormone. It won’t hurt the pet if we use a low dose of steroid for a short period (seven to ten days.) However, if we use more potent steroids for longer periods, then suddenly stop administering them, the animal’s body can’t adapt quickly enough and problems arise. This is one of the potentially serious side effects that can occur when we treat pets with steroids.
Corticosteroids have many positive effects and do a number of wonderful things. First, they are anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving). They decrease inflammation, swelling, pain (caused by inflammation), and itching (their ability to relieve itching leads many doctors to over-prescribe them for pets with allergic dermatitis). Steroids are also very helpful in the initial treatment of patients with severe shock and neurological disease (e.g. spinal cord and brain injuries) as they relieve inflammation. They also modulate the pet’s immune system, preventing the body from destroying itself in various autoimmune diseases such as lupus, immune anemias and platelet disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis. For pets with various cancers, corticosteroids can actually kill cancer cells.
On the minus side, corticosteroids can decrease the ability of wounds to heal while increasing the chance of infection due to immune suppression. They may also actually contribute to the further destruction of arthritic joints by decreasing collagen and proteoglycan synthesis, making them a poor choice for long-term therapy in most pets with arthritis. Long-term use can also cause diabetes, obesity, pancreatitis, thyroid disease, osteoporosis, and adrenal disease. Over the short term, steroids cause an increase in appetite, water intake and urine output.
For dogs and cats that may require steroids, a lower dose can often be used when natural therapies are also utilized. In order to minimize the use of steroids, the following natural therapies are very helpful. You will need to work with an integrative or holistic veterinarian to develop the best possible treatment regime for your particular animal’s needs.
1. Allergies — antioxidants, fatty acids, topical decontamination with hypoallergenic shampoos and conditioners, homeopathic remedies (such as Pulex, Sulfur) and herbal remedies (such as burdock, rehmannia, and dong quai, found in an effective product called Xiao,) can decrease itching and inflammation.
2. Arthritis — therapies to reduce pain and inflammation include Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, magnetic beds, homeopathics (Arsenicum, Hypericum) herbs (cat’s claw), glycosaminoglycans, cold laser, and acupuncture. Joint supplements containing glucosamine, hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate can also nourish and repair the damaged cartilage.
3. Autoimmune disorders — herbs and antioxidants are often recommended.
4. Inflammatory bowel disease — herbs, probiotics, enzymes, glucosamine and glutamine are usually recommended.
5. Cancer — numerous natural therapies are very helpful for supporting the immune system, detoxification, killing cancer cells and reducing their spread. Supplements I have found helpful include vitamin D3 (based on blood testing), antioxidants, herbs (astragalus, Echinacea), enzymes and probiotics, olive leaf, medicinal mushrooms, and homeopathics (such as Viscum Alb.).
While steroids certainly have their place and can be lifesaving in some circumstances, there are better alternatives for treating many diseases. When steroids need to be given, the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time, made possible through the simultaneous use of natural remedies, is most beneficial!
Veterinarian Dr. Shawn Messonnier wrote The Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog. He’s the pet care expert for Martha Stewart Living’s “Dr. Shawn – The Natural Vet” on Sirius Satellite Radio, and creator of Dr. Shawn’s Pet Organics. His practice, Paws & Claws Animal Hospital (petcarenaturally.com), is in Plano, Texas.