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Health & Wellness

Prednisone for dogs: usage and side effects

If your vet prescribes your pet prednisone, here’s what you need to know about the medication and the potential side effects.

Whether they're for your health or your pets' health, doctor's visits can feel overwhelming. So if you take your dog to the vet and come away with a prescription for prednisone and a lot of information that leaves you a little unnerved and confused, you're not alone. Even if your dog's vet is good at explaining health concerns and reasons for a new prescription, it can be hard to take it all in during moments of high stress. So if your vet prescribed your pup prednisone, here's what you need to know.

What is prednisone used for in dogs?

You may be generally familiar with the term “prednisone,” even if you and your pets have never used the medication before. In addition to being a drug for pets, it’s also a steroid used by humans. It’s a very strong medication typically used to treat autoimmune diseases and strong allergic reactions. So when a vet (or a doctor) prescribes prednisone, it’s often for a very good reason.

“There are only a few reasons dogs should be given corticosteroids, like prednisone,” Dr. Melissa Best, DVM, a US-trained-and-licensed veterinarian and the owner of Tranquila Vet in Costa Rica, says. “The top three are acute allergic reactions, a disease called hypoadrenocorticism (or Addison’s disease), and a condition called Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA), where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys its red blood cells.”

Of course, Addison’s disease and IMHA are more rare conditions, so generally speaking, if prednisone is prescribed, it’s in response to an acute allergic reaction.

Short vs. long-term use of prednisone in dogs

When prednisone is prescribed, it’s almost always for a short period of time to address your dog’s histamine response to an allergic reaction. “Steroids are very powerful and act quickly to relieve symptoms, but because of this fact, they also carry a high risk of side effects,” Dr. Best explains. “Occasionally, we will use a short course of steroids to relieve chronic allergy symptoms as it’s important to ‘break the itch-scratch cycle.’ However, this does nothing to address the underlying allergy and can cause serious, even life-threatening, side effects if used long-term.”

And this is exactly why you should understand the reasons for your vet’s prednisone prescription for your dog. If your pet receives a short course, likely it’s in response to an acute reaction that needs to be controlled. This is good news, but you need to know what the plan of action is to control the underlying reason for the allergic reaction in the first place.

If your vet prescribes a long-term course of steroids, you really need to understand the reasons. “The only time steroids would be used long-term is when the body can’t make its own steroids (such as in Addison’s disease), or when chronic suppression of the immune system is needed, such as in IMHA,” explains Dr. Best. “In these instances, we taper the dose to the least amount necessary to control symptoms over time while hopefully minimizing side effects.”

Side effects of prednisone in dogs

And, just as Dr. Best explains, prednisone is a strong drug that can cause significant side effects. If your vet prescribed prednisone to your dog, you need to be aware that your dog’s habits and behaviors may change short-term.

“Common side effects include markedly increased drinking and urination, increased hunger, restlessness, and very rarely, increased aggression. These all typically resolve when the medication is discontinued,” Dr. Best says.

While most side effects are short-term and resolve after you stop giving your dog prednisone, there are some significant downsides to a course of these corticosteroids.

“One of the most dangerous possible side effects is actually causing hypoadrenocorticism (Addison’s disease) in a patient. The body needs steroids to survive, and it usually does a great job at producing them in a very controlled way,” Dr. Best says. “When we give additional doses of steroids, we disturb the normal control pattern, and the body begins to produce less and less.”

The problem? If steroids are used too long, or are taken away suddenly, your dog may not be able to start producing his or her own steroids again. According to Dr. Best, this can be a life-threatening situation.

But that’s not the only potential long-term problem caused by significant or prolonged prednisone use. “We can also see changes to glucose metabolism leading to diabetes. In some patients, long-term steroid use can also lead to cardiovascular problems and higher risk of ulcers in the digestive system,” Dr. Best says. “It is critically important that all steroid administration is slowly reduced and never stopped suddenly for this reason. Even when serious side effects occur, we typically need to keep giving the prednisone in slowly-decreasing amounts to avoid causing an even more serious situation.”

RELATED: Dog allergies: symptoms and treatments

Prednisone for dogs without a vet prescription

Just because prednisone is one of the cross-over drugs that is used in humans and dogs, that doesn’t mean you should give it to your dog if you think he or she needs it without consulting a vet first. Due to the potential risks and side effects, you should only give your dog prednisone when it’s been prescribed by a vet, and according to the specific prescription your vet provides.

Prednisone for pain management

According to Dr. Best, prednisone is not a painkiller and should never be used (as a prescription or self-prescribed) as a way to relieve pain for your dog.

“Prednisone has anti-inflammatory action, however, it is absolutely not an analgesic medication or pain reliever,” Dr. Best says. “It can cause very serious interactions with actual pain-relieving drugs, so it should never be used for pain management. If a patient is on prednisone for other medical reasons, there are certain other pain relievers we can reach for; however, many of them are not as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), and several of them carry higher risks or are controlled substances with other significant side effects.”

So even if you think that the prednisone you have sitting in your medicine cabinet can help with your dog’s arthritis pain, don’t “play vet” at home. Prednisone is a strong and serious drug with major side effects that have the potential to cause negative interactions with other drugs. If you’re worried about your dog’s pain or an allergic reaction, get your dog to the vet for a check up, ASAP.

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The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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