How to protect your dog from the harmful side effects of steroids
Just a few days ago, I saw my dentist and was not given very good news.
For more than 10 years I lived with an undiagnosed hairline fracture in my root. My previous dentist didn't see the crack on the X-ray and when I finally realized that I had to get a second opinion, it was too late to save the tooth. My new dentist and I agreed that an implant was the only way to solve the problem. This is where technology and modern medicine excel and holistic medicine have to be put aside.
A few days after I booked my procedure, the dentist's office called me to pick up "Dex." I was puzzled. Is Dex what I think it is? As a veterinarian, I know that the word "Dex" is not a dog’s name, but the short name for dexamethasone, one of the most potent and potentially harmful steroid hormones.
"ARE YOU SURE?" I tried to make sure that this was not an error. "Oh yes, this is a routine part of the procedure to reduce the swelling" the receptionist replied, as if she was telling me that carrots were a good source of vitamin A.
I was bewildered. My dentist wanted to prescribe dexamethasone, one of the most powerful corticosteroid hormones. I knew that based on the essential medical principles, steroids should not be routinely prescribed when one's main objectives is good healing and reducing the risk of infections, but I felt awkward and said nothing.
I declined the prescription and decided to write this blog instead because steroids are greatly overused and cause serious side-effects.
What is a vicious steroid spiral?
On the surface, steroids can be seen as a miracle drug for your dog. When your dog is itchy and you give him/her only a few doses, the symptoms go away and the doctor is a hero! Except, in most chronic conditions, the problem comes back with a vengeance and the dose of steroids needs to be increased until they stop working all together or cause serious side effects.
It is not a vicious cycle, but a vicious downward spiral.
When you give your dog steroids, they suppress inflammation and tissue swelling for a hefty price. I call them the “high-interest credit cards" of medicine because they suppress healthy immune response and healing. This immune function inhibition also reduces the body's ability to fight off pathogens and infections.
The body's adrenal glands release small amounts corticosteroids in threatening and challenging situations. However, my observation is that giving corticosteroids as drugs makes any longterm recovery 10 times harder.
A good analogy could be made with scratching a vinyl record. The record player plays it beautifully, but if it is scratched, the needle starts skipping and the same song section of the song plays over and over.
Why do doctors use such treatment?
When I graduated from vet school, we were trained to see symptoms as the main problem. Even the names of the meds confirm this. Anti-inflammatory, antacid, antibiotic...the list of "anti" drugs could go on.
We were not taught that inflammation is a natural part of the acute healing process, and that it brings increased blood supply to tissues, nudges us to slow down and rest, and activates the immune systems. In summary, acute (not chronic) inflammation helps the body to heal faster.
When this part of the healing process is suppressed, the health problem reoccurs and repeated suppression leads to the condition becoming chronic.
This is not to say we should not address inflammation in your dog, but I am suggesting that it must be done by working with the body and not against it.
Inflammation is a warning sign there is a problem
It can be seen as the "caring neighbour" that comes to wake you up if your house caught on fire. The steroids can be compared to someone telling you to go back to sleep while your house is burning down around you.
In other words, steroids are the sleeping pill for the immune system that should protect your dog from chronic disease, organ failure, and serious damage.
Two common areas where steroids are commonly used for dogs
The most common conditions that I see steroids being used for in dogs are skin and ear problems.
You may now be asking why these drugs are used so often when they cause multiple side-effects?
I have been in practice for long enough to know that chronic skin and ear problems are some of the most challenging conditions in dogs. They are usually treated locally with the focus on reducing inflammation and redness without addressing the underlying causes.
Have you ever heard that skin problems and hotspots are often related to back injuries?
Or, how many dog lovers are aware that ear problems may be related to excessive chewing or collar injuries and toxin build up? This is often missed.
The reason why skin and ear problems often end up being serious, painful and long term is that the medication that blocks the body's natural healing responses is the mainstay of most treatment protocols.
What is Herring's law of cure
Perhaps for a moment, you thought that I would be writing about herrings, but I have something more important to share with you.
Dr. Herring was a medical doctor who discovered that every time a medical condition is suppressed with surgery or strong drugs, the body has a general tendency to slide into a deeper state of imbalance and more serious disease.
However, if you support the body by applying what I call the healing cycle, in most cases, the body heals quickly and efficiently.
This is why even common treatments such as antihistamines or asthma puffers can cause serious damage.
One condition where steroids may be indicated
It may surprise you that after me giving you so much info against steroids, there is one and only one condition where I would use them in dogs, and it is Addison's disease. This condition is characterized by a partial or a complete absence of natural steroid hormones due to abnormal adrenal gland function.
Even a short-term steroid treatment can cause long-term harm and side effects in your dog
Perhaps you now may be asking, what is the solution when a dog has sore ears and itchy skin and needs help? Wouldn't it be okay to give just a short course of medication and then work on the other parts?
The answer is NO. This is the most common case scenario I see. It would be very rare for a dog to die of a skin or ear condition, but there are, in my opinion, many dogs that lose years of life unnecessarily because they were suppressed with drugs.
Are antibiotics OK?
While I would be hard pressed to use any steroids or anti-inflammatories in treating dogs, I consider the odd antibiotic use necessary. It is important to acknowledge their toxicity, but generally, they act more as a crutch. Antibiotics are generally overused, but at times can be life-saving.
A few final words about steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs for dogs
Learning a holistic approach to medicine is not an overnight task, nor is a treating condition that has been present for months and years.
However, following the above-mentioned principles has been a cornerstone for me to keep your dog healthy and living well into their teens and perhaps even beyond.
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© Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM