There are three classes of steroids that may be used in dogs: corticosteroids, anabolic steroids and sex steroids.
The most commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs in veterinary medicine are corticosteroids. These drugs can suppress or prevent inflammation and are commonly used in the treatment of shock, allergies, inflammation, arthritis, Addison's disease and some types of cancer. Corticosteroids may also be used to suppress the immune system in animals with autoimmune disorders.
Side Effects of Corticosteroids
Although useful in treating a variety of problems, corticosteroids may have significant side effects including iatrogenic Cushing's disease, exacerbation or precipitation of diabetes, adrenal gland atrophy, electrolyte imbalances, calcium depletion, delayed healing of wounds and/or broken bones, gastrointestinal ulcers, increased susceptibility to infection and mood or behavioural changes.
Anabolic steroids may be used to stimulate the appetite, promote weight gain, assist in rebuilding muscle mass, strengthen existing muscle and treat some types of anaemia.
Side Effects of Anabolic Steroids
Anabolic steroids may induce changes in behaviour, reproductive problems, water retention and oedema.
Sex steroids are used primarily in female dogs to support or modify reproduction. These compounds may be used to induce or prevent a heat cycle, treat urinary incontinence in females, inhibit tumour growth, terminate or support a pregnancy, induce labour and promote lactation.
Side Effects of Sex Steroids
The use of certain sex steroids can result in the development or exacerbation of diabetes, bone marrow suppression, potentially fatal aplastic anaemia, development of cystic endometrial hyperplasia and adrenocortical suppression.
Debate and Cautions
Although useful in treating a variety of problems in dogs, a growing number of veterinarians and pet owners have concerns about the overuse of corticosteroids. The frequency and severity of the side effects associated with these drugs suggest that alternative therapies should be considered when possible.