Steroid Use in Cats: Is it Dangerous?

Nov 11, 2012 by Dr Elyse Kent    21 Comments    Posted under: Tips & Advice

Ms. Worry set up a consultation with me, Dr. Catz, to discuss the use of Prednisolone in her cat, Hershey Squirts.  My manager, Ms. E. Calm held the phone far away from her ear as Ms. Worry screamed that she thought the prescription from Dr. Catz for steroids would shorten Squirts’ life. Ms. Worry said her mother’s face had become permanently bloated and she had terrible mood swings when she was prescribed steroids for her asthma.

What are steroids?

Steroids are natural substances produced by the adrenal glands.

Corticosteroids are the type used for therapy in cats. Anabolic (performance-enhancing) steroids are not used in feline practice.

There are also synthetic steroids that are used to treat a variety of feline diseases.  The most common steroids used in feline medicine are prednisolone, dexamethasone, triamcinolone and budesonide.  Methylprednisolone is a slow release “repositol” steroid that is largely no longer used in cats since the risk is much greater for potential adverse effects than with thee shorter acting oral steroids.  Once given, a long acting injection can’t be reversed.

Steroids have potent anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic effects.

Some of the allergic conditions treated successfully with steroids in cats:

  • Allergic reactions to environmental stimuli, either by contact or inhalation
  • Flea allergic dermatitis
  • Allergic bronchitis
  • Allergic reactions to bee stings or spider bites

Inflammation causing acute or chronic pain can be treated with steroids:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Trauma, especially to the head
  • Disc problems
  • Soft tissue injuries like sprains or strains
  • Gingivitis

Prednisolone is often used in combination with other drugs for cancer treatment in cats.

Steroids may be used to stop the process of immune-destruction by slightly reducing an overactive immune response.

Some of the diseases in this category are:

  • Stomatitis (inflammation in the mouth)
  • Pemphigus (skin disease affecting ears, nose and anus)
  • Autoimmune hemolytic anemia
  • Certain kidney diseases

Corticosteroids are not “strong” medicines and are commonly used very effectively in treating many disorders in feline medicine, ranging from minor to life-threatening problems.

Most of the time, relatively high doses are used initially to achieve an effect, then tapered to the lowest dose and frequency needed to keep clinical signs at bay. Tapering allows the body to adapt to having the steroids removed from the body. Sometimes steroids can be stopped entirely at the end of the taper and other times are they are required long term. Some are started up as needed on a “pulse” or temporary basis when a disease “flares up”

Fortunately, cats are extremely resistant to the side effects of steroids.

The annoying side effects that dogs may experience rarely if ever occur in cats unless a profound overdose of steroids are prescribed.  The common side effects in dogs are increased hunger, thirst and urination, panting, pot-bellied appearance, lethargy,  and thinning of the skin.

Adverse effects of steroids in cats are relatively uncommon and almost always reversible.

The most common potential adverse effect of steroids in cats is diabetes mellitus.  This usually only occurs in cats that are already predisposed to diabetes, especially in those who are obese and/or on high carbohydrate diets. A feline doctor will require a baseline blood glucose level prior to starting corticosteroids and will monitor blood glucose levels periodically as long as the drug is continued.  The interval between glucose tests is dependent on the risks in a given patient as well as the dose required to control disease in that cat. If diabetes does show up secondary to steroid use, it will almost always go away after the drug is tapered and discontinued.   Some steroids have less systemic (whole body) side effects, notably budesonide when compared to the more commonly used prednisolone, and can still be used safely in some patients who have become diabetic while on prednisolone.  Also, steroid inhalers used for allergic bronchitis (Feline Asthma) have fewer systemic effects than oral steroids.

A less common side effect of corticosteroid use is to uncover hidden congestive heart failure (CHF).   If heart disease is undetected (occult), especially if a heart murmur is not heard, fluid can rapidly fill up the lungs causing labored breathing and distress after a steroid injection is given. If the patient is promptly seen by a vet on an emergency basis and CHF is diagnosed by a chest x-ray, oxygen therapy and diuretic injections generally cause the fluid to be urinated out and an echocardiogram can be performed to further define the heart condition.

One additional potential adverse effect is infection due to immunosuppression if high doses of steroids are needed to control an overactive/destructive immune response (diseases described earlier).  Infections may develop due to less than optimal immunity. Frequently these are upper respiratory infections (cold symptoms).  The combination of tapering and discontinuing use of the steroid and adding in antibiotics generally lead to resolution of the infection without complications.

Ms. Calm directed Ms. Worry to read this blog entry prior to her consult with Dr. Catz.  Ms. Worry reluctantly started prednisolone daily for 14 days and Squirt’s diarrhea resolved.  At his two week recheck, Dr. Catz began to taper the dose and frequency of  Squirt’s medication and explained that half the original dose given every 48 to 72 hours is likely to be well tolerated without serious side effects for the rest of Squirt’s life.

Dr Elyse Kent

Dr. Elyse Kent graduated from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980 and completed an Internship at West Los Angeles Veterinary Medical Group in 1981.

In her early years in practice, Dr. Kent began to see a need for a separate medical facility just for cats, where fear and stress would be reduced for feline patients. In 1985, in a former home in Santa Monica, Dr. Kent opened the only exclusively feline veterinary clinic in Los Angeles, Westside Hospital for Cats (WHFC). Along with other forward-thinking feline practitioners from across North America, Dr. Kent founded the Academy of Feline Medicine in 1991. Through the efforts of these practitioners, feline medicine and surgery became a certifiable species specialty through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). Dr. Kent became board certified in Feline Practice in the first group to sit for the Feline exam in 1995. She certified for an additional ten (10) years in 2005. There are now 78 feline specialists in the world. Dr. Kent served as the Feline Regent and Officer on the Council of Regents for 9 years. She is currently the immediate Past President of the ABVP, which certifies all species specialists. She also heads up a task force joining certain efforts of the ABVP with The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). She currently serves as a Director on the Executive Board of The American Association of Feline Practitioners.

The present day WHFC facility opened in 2000. It was the fulfillment of a vision for a spacious, delightful, state of the art, full service cat medical center that Dr. Kent had dreamed of and planned for over many years.

Westside Hospital for Cats
2317 Cotner Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Phone: 310-479-2428

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  • Michael Ray

    I agree Dr. Kent. We treat inflammatory machines for a living, you gotta have steroids! Thanks for the perspective

  • Melanie Bender

    Informative article. Thank you. And the photo at the top made me laugh out loud!

  • Melanie Bender

    Informative article. Thank you. And the photo at the top made me laugh out loud!

    • jlung

      Hi Melanie, thanks for the feedback! Feel free to suggest any topics you would like one of the doctors to blog about,

    • jlung

      Hi Melanie, thanks for the feedback! Feel free to suggest any topics you would like one of the doctors to blog about,

  • Marcia

    Is that a Pallas cat in the pic?

    • jlung

      It is not but it sure does look like one now that you mention it.

  • Jo

    Good article. Goes a long way towards calming the fears of cat owners.

    Do you still advocate low dose prednisolone use for feline osteoarthritis in elderly cats with concurrent CKD? If so, what is your typical starting dose for these cats?

  • Jo

    Asking again as there has been no response: Is low dose prednisolone relatively safe to give a geriatric cat with chronic kidney disease (and hyperthyroidism) to treat inflammation and pain from arthritis? Yes, we have tried pain meds such as tramadol, gabapentin and buprenorphine, but none of them seem to be helping him much. That is why I am considering asking my vet for a low dose–maybe every other day administration–regimen of prednisolone. Could REALLY use felinedocs’ input on this! Please help!

    • Windingdown

      Hi Jo Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) a tiny dose once a day for a cat works just like acupuncture dose it releases endorphins and its in a transdermal base for the ear once a day and helps inflammation google it.. best of luck.

      • Lola

        Thanks atiny dose. I wonder if Pred. Caused her kidney disease. – my cat ! She has been on pred for years! I tried to lower it to what the tech said and she went into shock in a week. I’m lowering the Pred chews slow now. She was put on for IBD . Hope her symtoms dont come back . But is too hard on kidneys.

  • Marcus Brown Dvm


    Sorry for the delayed response. Tramadol does not seem to work for cats and they HATE the taste.

    Gabapentin and buprenorphine are very safe and effective medications. Sorry to hear that they are not helping. You may want to ask about Adequan inject-able.
    There are diets that are rich in Omega 3′s and chondrotin. Hills /d or Royal Canin Joint. You may want to pursue non-medical approaches such as acupuncture

    or laser therapy.

    I am including links from my clinic. You should consult with your veterinarian for therapies they would consider viable.

    My apologizes for the delay in response.

    • Windingdown

      BCP VET pharmacy in Texas has transdermal Tramadol. Works well with LDN since opiates cant be used with LDN..

    • Windingdown

      Also Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) a tiny dose once a day for a cat works just like acupuncture dose it releases endorphins and its in a transdermal base for the ear once a day

  • Digby Joseph

    Hi – I’m currently weaning my kitty, Digby Joseph, off oral prednisone while at the same time introducing inhaled steroids for his asthma. He’s a chunky monkey weighing in at almost 20lbs. Will he begin losing weight once the oral steroids have been discontinued?

  • msdds1

    My cat was on low dose steroids for years. He had irritable bowl syndrom which I diagnosed. Dentist by profession. He lived to 18.5 years as an indoor/outdoor cat.

  • msdds1

    PS. my cat weight was 25 pounds on prednison. He gained five and than he stabilized at that weight. He was a happy cat. Bubba the bruiser.

  • Windingdown

    Check out Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) it is now used on Cats with success.. it helps IBD big time! and CHEAP!!! Im using in stead of steroids on my cat who heart diease for possible cancer. I get mine for my kitty 2 mo supply of transdermal LDN 30.00 plus shipping.. I put on the ear ONCE a morning and that’s it.. works by reducing inflammation but its not a steroid, its an immune modulator so no messing up the immune system.. I get my kitties LDN from Skips Compounding on FL

  • Jo

    Windingdown, thank you so much for the info on LDN! Will do some research on that and talk to my vet about it, too. Have tried several months of Adequan, 8 acupuncture treatments, four laser treatments, Cosequin, Omega 3 oil, tramadol oral then transdermal, buprenorphine, gabapentin (did not do normal dose as was afraid it would negatively affect kidneys), deer antler velvet, various glucosamine/chondroitan treats, and I’m sure some other things I can’t think of right now. Feline arthritis sucks!

  • Jo

    Oh, the only thing that has helped Lucky’s arthritis a bit is a product called Hyaflex for Cats–liquid hyaluronic acid. I don’t understand why the oral version of HA would work when several months of Adequan injections, dosed as instructed by the maker, did not.

  • Ruth Santana

    My cat Sammy has a very painful inflammatory gum condition called stomatitis. I’ve read that low dose LDN could help him. He also has an anxiety disorder and very picky with food due to the pain in his mouth. I thought transdermal LDN would be ideal for him but I have not been able to find a place to buy it. I read some of you have been using this product. Could you please let me know how to obtain it. Thanks in advance