Dexamethasone is a type of steroid that is used both in human and veterinary medicine. It has a wide variety of uses but overwhelmingly used to decrease inflammation in the body. Used carefully, this medication can provide relief from a variety of diseases but it must be used exactly as directed to avoid serious side effects.
What Does Dexamethasone Do?
Dexamethasone is a synthetic type of steroid hormone called glucocorticoids and it is used primarily for its anti-inflammatory properties. Steroids conjure up images of brawny body builders. Those steroids are in the anabolic group, where they are building up muscle in the body. Dexamethasone is a catabolic steroid where it metabolically can break down muscle. Just like people, a dog's body has naturally occurring hormones such as cortisol. Dexamethasone is approximately 25 times stronger than cortisol.
Using dexamethasone in a dog causes the body not to form a typical inflammatory reaction. A dog's body will react with its natural inflammation process but can range from very mild inflammatory reactions like itchy skin all the way to anaphylaxis. As a steroid, it is very long lasting compared to other commonly prescribed steroids in veterinary medicine such as prednisone. A single dose can last three days in your dogs body.
Diseases/Issues Dexamethasone Can Treat
There are multitude diseases that use dexamethasone as a treatment, or as an adjunct treatment. Dexamethasone can be used to treat anaphylaxis after an insect bite or the rare vaccine reaction, for spinal cord trauma, immune mediated diseases like immune mediated hemolytic anemia and lupus, and also in managing some cancers.
Steroids have long been used in treating skin conditions where the itch is too unbearable for a dog to tolerate without resorting to itching themselves raw. Dexamethasone may still be prescribed for some skin treatments or severe ear infections but typically this is a very short duration as there are medications that target itchiness in dogs, like apoquel, without the systemic effects of a steroid.
As a treatment it can be given as an injection, orally, or even as drops to treat eye inflammation. Most often dexamethasone is not used as a single treatment for any disease but rather one part of a treatment plan.
Side Effects of Dexamethasone Use
With any steroid the most common side effect can be increased hunger, increased thirst, and more frequent urination. Any time a dog is on dexamethasone make sure you keep the water bowl full and have frequent potty breaks! This may be one of those times where your pup has a reason to be begging more at the table.
While dexamethasone gives wonderful results it should be used very judiciously. Chronic long term use or inappropriate use of a long acting steroid like dexamethasone can cause severe hormonal and metabolic changes. Since they have such a powerful effect on inflammation, long term they can suppress a dog’s natural immune response. A weakened immune system will find it harder to fight off even minor viral or bacterial infections. Dexamethasone can also cause or exacerbate gastric ulcers. Never give your dog a dose of leftover steroid medication just because it had been prescribed in the past. Always have your pet examined again, even if it was prescribed for a recurring condition such as a bad ear infection.
If you are concerned about potential side effects, always discuss medication options with your veterinarian. There may be other drugs just as suitable for certain condition but has a lesser changes of serious side effects. It remains ever important to let the veterinarian know which medication your dog is currently taking. Some types of medications can not be given together. For example, Rimadyl, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory is very dangerous if given simultaneously with dexamethasone or any other steroids.
Considerations Before Using Dexamethasone for Dogs
Dexamethasone is a great medication because of its long lasting effects but because of its potent effect on the body, veterinarians rarely make it the first grab off the medicine shelf. With the list of side effects are you able to monitor your dog closely to make note if any present themselves? The dosing schedule of the medication can also be different than other medications you have given your dog in the past. You may only be dosing your dog every other day, or longer, with dexamethasone. Also, when you discontinue the medication there is a very gradual weaning process so your dog’s body isn’t upset by the sudden departure of the steroid. Making sure all family members are on board with how the medication is dosed, for how long, and what side effects warrant immediate attention are extremely important when using dexamethasone.