Using cortisone to help itchy dogs and cats

Skin allergies are a common reason for veterinary visits

Skin allergies are amongst the most frustrating health problems exhibited by both dogs and cats, and are likely the most common reason for veterinary visits outside of wellness exams. Pets present with various manifestations of self trauma from licking, biting or scratching at themselves. Commonly affected areas include the lower back, feet, ears, chest and abdomen. However, any area of the body can be affected. Many pets can develop secondary yeast or bacterial infections of the skin or ear canals, which often add to the discomfort.

The most common causes of allergies include flea bite allergens, inhalant/contact allergies, and food allergies. That’s why it is necessary for veterinarians to address the potential underlying causes or the problem will recur. While such a workup and treatment often takes time and patience, animal guardians are often most insistent about relieving their pets of itching discomfort as quickly as possible.

While shampoo therapy, antihistamines, antibiotics and dietary changes can offer sometimes gradual relief, depending upon which of the above underlying causes are involved, it is often only the prescription of cortisone by injection or oral medication that often is the only class of medicine that offers dramatic and quick relief which animal guardians are demanding. Various concerns expressed by both veterinarians and animal guardians center around the short and more importantly long term potential side effects of cortisone. These include its suppressive effect on the immune system and increased risk of infection, to thinning/weakening of the bones, ligaments and skin, as well as weight gain, excessive thirst, urination and appetite.

If cortisone is overused or misused, some animals have an increased risk of diabetes as well. And while most veterinarians will always offer other options, including other drugs like Cyclosporine or Atopica, as well as even referral to veterinary dermatologists for allergy testing on long term skin/ear cases, many animal guardians simply do not have the money in today’s economy for these more expensive treatment options.

Repeated injections of long-acting cortisone derivatives like Depo-Medrol have much more of a risk for the side effects mentioned above. However, if cortisone is used appropriately, most safely by the oral route and tapered to the lowest effective dose,  many pets can be maintained during their allergy seasons or even longer on every other to every third day oral therapy. When Prednisone or Prednisolone is prescribed in this manner, and the pet is monitored periodically by the veterinarian, most pets do indeed tolerate long term oral cortisone safely, and animal guardians are able to offer their animals relief of frustrating skin problems that bother both them and their animal companions.  And when other adjunctive treatments such as shampoo therapy, omega 3 fatty acid therapy, as well as other supplements like Proanthozone and Vetri-DMG, many pets can eventually have their cortisone doses lowered and discontinued.

Have pet health questions? For any medical concerns, we always recommend you consult your veterinarian. However, for non-emergency questions, you can contact Dr. Dym directly using our Ask the Vet form.

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  1. A dog’s skin allergies can be very difficult to diagnose and treat. You must go through all types of testing and be prescribed a lot of drugs to treat allergies in your dog. i have read all the reasons and treatment of allergies mentioned in this website.

  2. Yes. Using the correct shampoo can provide the much needed relief for a dog with itchy, irritable skin due to allergies.

    Some brands of natural dog shampoo contains essential oils that has skin healing properties. It helps to reduce the itchiness and soothe inflamed skin.

  3. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianNovember 27, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing. Topical therapy is quite helpful in my opinion in removing contact allergens that can contribute to itchy dogs. Shampooing a few times weekly can be quite helpful during itchy seasons.

  4. We went through every diet and specialist allergy testing option yet cortison was the only relief for our Labrador. Unfortunately he only made it to 4yrs old and died from pancreatitis. It was a tragic case and other factors such as too many fatty bones were involved but if we had understood the increased risk of pancreatitis due to cortison use we would have been more conscious of avoiding fatty foods such as bones. Please educate people on this risk and potential side effect!

  5. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianFebruary 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Sorry to hear of the loss of your dog to pancreatitis. Will indeed share your story on this blog so others may potentially benefit.

  6. Can a daily dose of cortisone cause death in a 8 year old German Shepard that was in perfect health>she just had blood work and everything cked out.She was deemed fine until the p[ills for a bump on the ear.

  7. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 1, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Unless the cortisone caused a bleeding ulcer it should not have caused the death.

  8. the dog died on the operating table for what the vet thought was a ruptured spline.If they are telling my just was bleeding internally wouldn’t that be consistant with a bleeding ulcer?

  9. I would like to add after doing some research.That cortisone is one of the leading drugs that can bring on a bleeding ulcer,in a dog.

  10. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 2, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Not necessarily. Bleeding tumors are common causes of death in dogs on the spleen.

  11. you were the one that said a bleeding ulcer,now I pointed out that this drug can causes one.So why would you jump ship on be bleeding ulcer?My other questions would be why didnt the vet just lance the ear,that’s the most common way to fix it,why the drug for weeks with the bad stuff that occurs with it?I read this steroids is a quick fix for a vet.They use way to much on trivial stuff like a simple busted blood vessel in an ear in the ear.

  12. My cat is currently on 0.8ml of prednisone 2x/day for 5 days then daily for 5 days then every other day for 5 days. I was wondering if half a benadryl could be given to her in conjunction as during this time we will be encountering a 12 hour car ride. I wasn’t sure as to the interactions and I’ve been researching exhaustively online without answers. She is 8lbs and 13 years old. FIV positive.

  13. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianDecember 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    HI Adrienne. I dont think benadryl should be harmful to your cat. Perhaps try 1/2 childrens dose. Also consider natural remedies like be serene from 1800petmeds, as well as DMG liquid to boost immune system.

  14. My cat has had serious itching problems around the ears for over a year. He was scratching and tearing up his skin so badly that we has to remove both sets of claws so he would stop bleeding. He still itches, has no ear mites and we clean his ears every other day with a q-tip and cleanser from the vet. Is cortisone cream ok? I was also thinking of going him Benadryl, but I wasn’t sure of the weight/dosage ratio.

  15. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianDecember 24, 2012 at 11:30 am

    HI Ron: I was not aware from your initial questions several months that your dog had an ear hematoma, or broken blood vessel in the ear. Treatment of that conditions is usually with surgical drainage, and NOT cortiocsteroids. Steroid use may cause GI ulcers in some cases, which may bleed out if severe. Abdominal masses such as hemangiosarcoma may also rupture and cause sudden death in dogs. Sometimes the only way to know when presented with a collapsed dog is through tapping the abdomen for free blood in the belly or doing an ultrasound of the abdomen. Endoscopy can also demonstrate a stomach ulcer. Otherwise, exploratory surgery is often the ultimate definitive diagnosis, if these other diagnostics are not possible in an acute situation.

  16. My Boxer is an oldie, yet in good health. Always he had some skin probs, as in allergies, but this year it is worse. Can i give an old dog, that has not been taking any meds ever in his life, except for worm pills, cortisone?

  17. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 2, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Cortisone is usually ok, however it should be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian in your state and have appropriate monitoring

  18. Thank you for your answer. I have found a cream with Cortisone in it, and i bought him a ‘lampshade’ so he can not lick. He seems to be fine. I made him flea free and it all seems to do the trick. He has no urge to scratch and the allergy spots are looking much better.

  19. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 3, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Glad to hear things looking up

  20. Yes, i am glad as well. It was very stressful for him. He is 10, had his skin problems (Boxers are a bit sensitive to that) but never this bad. In no time crusts developed and he was stressing out. I did my regular flea thing (with all of my dogs that i have at the moment, 19, i rescue them on the island of Crete in Greece, Thursday 4 are leaving to Holland to their “Golden Baskets”), but still he was so itchy. I felt sorry for him. As money is a bit tight, i was looking for a cheap solution. The cream, plus some extra vitamins for the skin ‘correction’ and the hair growth seem to do the trick. He is sleeping again without waking up to scratch and he is more energetic again. My 10 year old ‘Grandpa”!!! He does not deserve to be in distress like that…. Now he is out enjoying the sun!

  21. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 13, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks for sharing

  22. Hi, we have two dogs, mix breed and Golden Retriever, we just moved from Mexico to Paris and they’ve been dealing with a LOT of itching, hair loss (specially the GR) and they were prescribed prednisone for four days. It worked fine and a week ago they started to be incredibly itchy 24/7, so we started the prednisone again, they have been taking it for three days (today will be their fourth dosis) but what I’ve been reading I prefer for them to stop it, so I wonder if it’s harmful if I just stop giving the prednisone today. The Golden ret. have being urinating weird, at home (he never does that) and I’ve learned that is normal in this cases but he also does it very very slowly, so it’s a lot or urine in a very slow pace, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing… I’m confused about what’s best for them, but I have this feeling that they should stop taking the medicine (its just a felling, I know it might not be a rational thing). Thank you so much in advance for your response, I’m kind of worried and the veterinarian that’s been seeing them only speaks french and I don’t and my husband (French) is out of town 🙁

  23. Hello, my 11 year old dog developed a rash and the vet gave him a cortisone shot. The only warning I received was he would get more thirsty and due to this urinate more. A month later he was severely diabetic, couldn’t move, eat, drink. I went to another vet for a second opinion and was told that he was in such a bad condition the kindest thing we could do was put him down, which we did.
    I am so upset that I wasn’t informed more, after all we started off with just a rash. Any adviice would be appreciated, thank you.

  24. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 22, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Curious to see what type of cortisone shot your dog got. With short acting injections used short term, usually diabetes is not a problem. However if long acting drugs like vetalog or depomedrol then diabetes is rare possibility. Sorry to hear about your dog’s situation. Also have urine analysis to make sure no infection complicating issues.

  25. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianJune 22, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Long term pred use can lead to other health issues like joint issues, secondary infections and even hormonal conditions like diabetes or Cushings. Try good antihistamine like zyrtec at dose of one half mg per pound once to twice daily. Add fatty acid to meals like be well from 1800petmeds. I also like Yucca intensive and proanthozone from 1800petmeds.

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