But there is another type of steroid out there - glucocorticoids - the most common steroids used in veterinary medicine.

What are Glucocorticoids?

Glucocorticoids (GCs) are one of three types of natural steroids, known as corticosteroids, which are secreted by the adrenal glands in all mammals. GCs cause proteins (e.g. muscle) and lipids (e.g. body fats) to be broken down and converted into glucose, our body's main energy source. For this reason, glucocorticoids are often referred to as catabolic steroids.

Why?

Because catabolism is the process of breaking down large molecules into smaller ones - the opposite of anabolism.

Did You Know?
The adrenal glands will release glucocorticoids when we become frightened — so they are sometimes called "stress hormones".

Veterinary Uses

The glucocorticoids used in veterinarian medicine are synthetic and there are several different types available (see the attachment). They come in either topical (applied as a cream or a lotion) or systemic (injected or pill) forms.

Did You Know?
Cortisone and cortisol are natural glucocorticoids secreted by the adrenal glands.

Glucocorticoids are mostly used to control inflammation. Examples include the skin (allergies), gastrointestinal system (inflammatory bowel disease), neurological system (ruptured or herniated disc) or eyes (acute uveitis). Let's take a look at a couple of these:

Allergies

You may not be aware of this but pets, just like humans, can develop allergies. The allergy may be caused by something they inhaled (e.g. pollen), came into contact with (e.g. flea bite) or ate (e.g. beef by-product in their food).

In all cases, the allergens cause inflammation of the skin. If the allergy is seasonal, the veterinarian will likely give a single long-lasting injection of a glucocorticoid. In other cases, the animal may be given an initial injection of a short-acting glucocorticoid. The owner would then be sent home with tablets and instructions to gradually reduce the dosage over time.

Ruptured disc

The bones of the spine are cushioned by small discs which are physically similar in structure to jelly doughnuts. The thick outer portion is called the annulus and the inner "jelly" is the nucleus.

A ruptured disc occurs when part of the nucleus pushes out and puts pressure on the nerves in the spinal cord. Aside from being painful, it also prevents nerve impulses from travelling from the brain to the rear of the animal. Glucocorticoids are often used to help reduce the swelling until the ruptured disc returns to its normal shape.

Did You Know?
Dogs such as basset hounds and dachshunds are particularly susceptible to a ruptured disc because they have long bodies and short legs.

Possible Side Effects

Glucocorticoids, if used correctly, usually pose little risk to animals. But like all drugs, there are possible side effects. These include increased thirst, changes in attitude or appetite, immune suppression, pancreatitis, increased liver enzymes, diabetes and stomach ulcers. However, all of these are preventable if care is taken to monitor the dosage of the drug and the response of the animal.

Did You Know?
Horses treated with glucocorticoids sometimes develop laminitis — an inflammation in the area of the hoof that contains nerves and blood vessels.

In closing...

For the most part, glucocorticoids only suppress the harmful effects of disorders (e.g. allergies); they have no role in healing an ailment. If your vet prescribes these steroids, and you are uneasy with this, ask for advice on alternative treatments to make your pet more comfortable.

Learn More!

Articles on Glucocorticoids:

The Proper Use of Topical and Oral Corticosteroids The Merck Veterinary Manual — Corticosteroids

The Man behind the Juice (anabolic steroids)

This article was first published in 2007.

Stan Megraw

Stan is a writer/researcher, a PhD graduate of McGill University and was a member of the CurioCity team for several years. As a kid he dreamed of playing hockey in the NHL then becoming an astronaut with NASA. Instead, he ended up as an environmental research scientist. In his spare time Stan enjoys working on DIY projects, cooking and exploring his Irish roots.


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