A confirmed diagnosis may not be immediately possible when a veterinarian is confronted with a pruritic dog or cat, and the
list of differential diagnoses can be extensive.
1. Used appropriately, glucocorticoids can alleviate discomfort for patients with the ability to match the dose and duration
of treatment to the patient's needs.
As clinicians, we are trained to consider the differential diagnoses and make a diagnosis based on the findings in the patient's
history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. While it is important to consider the possibility of scabies, demodicosis,
dermatophytosis, neoplasia, and other differential diagnoses, the vast majority of pruritic patients have an allergic or flea-induced
dermatitis with a secondary bacterial or yeast infection. Often, treatment of any secondary infections significantly reduces
the patient's level of discomfort and pruritus. However, many patients also require additional therapy for the inflammation
and pruritus associated with the underlying disease.
Acute amelioration of clinical signs can be achieved within minutes to hours, depending on the formulation and route of glucocorticoid
administration. Regarding intermediate-term use of short-acting glucocorticoids, clients and patients benefit because the
dose and route of administration can be changed depending on the patient's needs. This is particularly useful with atopic
patients because the severity of clinical signs can vary daily and weekly.
Some common systemic glucocorticoid preparations and their inflammatory dosages for dogs are listed in Table 1.
2. Patient-specific dosing is essential, and understanding the differences in physiologic, antipruritic, anti-inflammatory,
and immunosuppressive dosages will help the practitioner safely meet the patient's and client's needs.
As clinicians, we may dismiss the idea of using glucocorticoids as a treatment in patients with a variety of clinical dermatologic
signs. Our client education practices have successfully persuaded clients not to overuse this category of drugs. Consequently,
we now find ourselves educating clients about the benefits of judicious and prudent glucocorticoid use for a variety of dermatoses.
Explaining that animals normally produce their own glucocorticoids can help alleviate well-intentioned client aversion to
therapy with glucocorticoids.
As with most medications, side effects are possible and increase in severity with higher doses and longer courses of therapy.
However, glucocorticoids offer a rapid speed of efficacy, a short duration of activity, and an easily adjusted dosage regimen
that is desired in the treatment of many dermatoses. Knowing that a one-time therapeutic dose of a glucocorticoid in an otherwise
healthy animal can be less than the one-time diagnostic dose in a systemically ill patient ( a high-dose dexamethasone test for hyperadrenocorticism) can be liberating for clinicians who want to safely meet a patient's
and client's needs. A safe annual glucocorticoid dose can allow clinicians to more comfortably manage patients and educate
clients. This dose is actually less than the patient's own endogenous glucocorticoid production. (See "Guidelines for calculating
In veterinary dermatology, glucocorticoids have three main pharmacologic dosage ranges for dogs (Table 1). Pharmacologic dosages exceed the physiologic requirements and vary according to the desired effect. The physiologic dosage
range of glucocorticoids therapy is derived from the normal daily production of endogenous cortisol. People experiencing stress
have been shown to increase cortisol production to 10 times their physiologic levels. While canine dosage guidelines exist
in the literature, treatment of each patient should be customized to achieve the lowest effective dosage and for the shortest
period of time necessary to control the clinical signs.
3. Glucocorticoids are mainly used short-term while addressing causes of pruritus and treating complicating factors.
Many clinicians find one of the following protocols or a variation helpful when managing their allergic patients' inflammation
and pruritus with glucocorticoids. They use these protocols while also addressing complicating factors and underlying or coexisting
etiologies (e.g., fleas and secondary infections):
Acute canine protocol. Treat the inflammation and pruritus with two to five days of glucocorticoid therapy consisting of either a short-acting oral
glucocorticoid or single injection of a short-acting glucocorticoid. I commonly use subcutaneous dexamethasone sodium phosphate
(SP) at 0.5 to 1.0 mg per 10 lbs body weight. The dose is similar to the dose used for high-dose dexamethasone suppression
tests. It may be administered subcutaneously or intravenously and is usually very well tolerated with minimal subsequent polyuria
and polydipsia. The beneficial effects last two to five days, which is slightly longer than the other short-acting glucocorticoids.
Acute feline protocol. For short-duration oral therapy, prednisolone, methylprednisolone, or dexamethasone is more commonly utilized because cats
inadequately convert prednisone to prednisolone. Cats may be difficult to administer oral medication to and they can tolerate
higher doses and glucocorticoids with a longer duration. Thus, longer-acting injectable glucocorticoids such as methylprednisolone
acetate are a particularly attractive alternative. Many veterinary dermatologists carefully utilize this drug successfully
and safely for occasional therapy.
Intermediate-term therapy. Often, less than one week of therapy (by either a single injection or daily oral medication) is necessary to break the pruritic
cycle. Administer short-acting oral preparations every 48 hours or less often to mitigate suppression of the adrenal axis.
Administer intermediate-acting preparations every 72 hours or less. The safe annual steroid dose is a guideline to be considered
in these patients.
You should further investigate and treat the underlying cause of the inflammation and pruritus. According to the American
College of Veterinary Dermatology Task Force on Canine Atopic Dermatitis, allergen-specific immunotherapy is the only mode
of therapy shown to result in partial or complete remission of canine atopic dermatitis without the further need of additional
Glucocorticoids are an integral part of our pruritic patients' comfortable existence. They have many advantages over other
forms of therapy and can be safely used for therapeutic purposes. However, they are not without potential side effects. When
prescribing glucocorticoids, as with so much of what we do, monitoring and client education are essential aspects of patient