Steroids in veterinary medicine: on the track and in the exam room
With discussions on Big Brown’s doping and his trainer’s freewheeling use of the still-legal muscle-bulkers still in the press, I thought it would be appropriate to delve a little deeper into this topic. After all, it applies to pets, too—and I have one current case that might raise your eyebrows a centimeter or two.
So you know, there are two kinds of steroids we veterinarians can use in our practices. The first is the corticosteroid, better known as prednisone, dexamethasone, depo-medrol, etc. These are our go-to drugs for serious inflammation untouchable by other methods.
We love corticosteroids. But we’re scared of them, too. They have lots of acute side effects such as gastrointestinal ulceration, increased urination/thirst, potential clotting issues (especially in the lungs) and a host of long-term issues related to their continued administration.
But these aren’t the ones we’ll be concentrating on today. Anabolic steroids are the ones we’ve been fretting about since Eight Belles met her untimely end and Big Brown pulled away from the pack twice in as many weeks. They’re also the ones responsible for Marion Jones’s Olympic medal retraction and Lance Armstrong’s questionable natural athletic superiority.
The difference between the human and equine examples comes down to legal terms. It’s OK in our books to administer muscle-building anabolic steroid injections to equine athletes. But it’s wrong for a human athlete to choose these drugs for themselves.
What’s the difference? you may be wondering. And here it is: These drugs DO build muscle. They DO improve athletic performance. But they also have serious side-effects. Therefore, it would be unfair to raise the athletic bar for humans who may choose not to sacrifice their health for their athletic careers… Nonetheless, it’s considered OK for humans to choose to put a horse’s health at risk under nearly identical circumstances.
The racing industry’s answer to the question of steroids? It’s not exactly uniform, but the general consensus seems to be that if we have no studies to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s hurting our horses then we’ll just keep on keeping on. It’s like having to prove that climate change is actually happening by getting every scientist in the world to concur.
Heart trouble, skeletal changes, liver toxicity, renal compromise, behavior problems…need I go on? This is the legacy of months or years of steroid use in humans. Why should we definitively prove the same for animals when we know these compounds function similarly in animal bodies? Do we need controlled, double-blinded studies to finally end the use of steroids on tracks across this country? Isn’t the damage they’ve done in other species and in other sports proof positive?
Seemingly not. And when you hear what my day job occasionally entails, you might just think me a hypocrite.
Roger Dodger is a typical yellow Lab with a singular trait: He’s almost 17 years old. Though he’s been on Rimadyl for four years, then Metacam, then Metacam and Tramadol, then Metacam and Tramadol and Amantadine, Rodger Dodger is increasing in his decrepitude.
Rodger Dodger’s owner’s the best. She treats him to on-time medication, a special diet and regular swimming sessions. No dog has it better. But he’s on his last legs. It’s obvious. That’s why we got him onto the ‘roids. He’s taking Winstrol-V (stanazolol) weekly to win him back some lost muscle.
Sure, it’s got some scary side-effects. But this dog has beautiful bloodwork, a stellar cardiac profile and a will to live that supersedes all else. How could I hold back on the only drug left in my arsenal that might bring him ‘round a bit?
Though Rodger Dodger hasn’t agreed to my use of this drug on his frail body, I believe the goal of its use is far different that for our high-performing equines. Though I worry about my last-ditch approach to Rodger Dodger’s orthopedic health, it’s exactly that—a salvage effort. Though you might not fully agree, I feel it’s a far cry from the consideration granted two year-old horses being pushed beyond the limits of their orthopedics.
Does it not make common sense to assume that the increased musculature granted high-performing horses via anabolic steroids—on increasingly slim limbs—means decreased stability and increased injury rates? To me that’s a mechanical reality which does not even begin to factor in the other long-term risks to these horses we may not fully understand.
In my veterinary practice, anabolic steroids have their place. Though I use them rarely—and not without stress—I can’t quite dispense with them entirely. Even this generally positive experience, however, does not prepare me to accept their use in otherwise healthy animals. It’s not only damaging, it’s unfair…for the horses and for their clean competitors.