How to protect your dog from the harmful effect 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 spiral?
On the surface, steroids can be seen as a miracle drug. 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.
Steroids suppress inflammation and tissue swelling for a hearty 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 corticosteroid pills affects the body very differently. It makes any longterm recovery 10 times harder.
An analogy could be made with 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.
The biggest problem is the perception
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 could go on.
No one really taught us that that inflammation is a natural part of the acute healing process. It brings increased blood supply to tissues, it makes us slow down and rest, it helps activate the immune systems and allows the body to heal faster.
The paradox is that when this part of the healing process is suppressed, the problem keeps coming back until the healing process is disturbed so severely that the condition becomes chronic.
I am not saying not to address inflammation, but it has to be done by working with the body and not against it.
The 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 who would tell 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 is there to protect your dog.
Two common areas where steroids are commonly used
The most common conditions that I see steroids being used for in dogs are skin and ear problems. The most common preparations are prednisone, Vanectyl-P (a combination of corticosteroids and antihistamines) and almost all ear ointments.
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 common conditions. The problem is that they are usually treated locally with the focus on reducing inflammation and redness.
How often do you hear that skin problems and hotspots are often related to back injuries? Are many dog lovers aware that ear problems may be related to excessive chewing or collar injuries and toxin build up?
The reason why skin and ear problems often end up being serious, painful and long term is that the conventional treatment approach blocks the body's natural healing responses.
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 homeopath and a medical doctor who discovered that every time medical conditions are suppressed with surgery or strong drugs, the body has a general tendency to slide into deeper and deeper 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 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
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 ok to 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, 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
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