Hydrocortisone for Dogs

Stephanie Howe, DVM
By Stephanie Howe, DVM. Reviewed by Molly Price, DVM on Jan. 30, 2024
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In This Article

Overview

PetMD’s medications content was written and reviewed by veterinary professionals to answer your most common questions about how medications function, their side effects, and what species they are prescribed for. This content shouldn’t take the place of advice by your vet.

What Is Hydrocortisone for Dogs?

Hydrocortisone for dogs is a type of glucocorticoid (steroid) used for its anti-inflammatory and anti-itch effects to treat a variety of conditions in dogs and cats.

Hydrocortisone can be found in multiple over-the-counter and prescription products, both as an individual medication and in combination with other ingredients.

Types of Hydrocortisone Medications for Dogs

Hydrocortisone  is available in topical forms for dogs including creams, shampoos, sprays, ointments, and ear drops for the treatment of skin and ear inflammation, itching, and swelling.

The injectable form of hydrocortisone for dogs is administered in veterinary hospital for emergency treatment of hypoadrenocorticism (Addisonian crisis). While oral forms of hydrocortisone are available and sometimes used for long-term maintenance therapy for Addison’s disease, they are not routinely used in veterinary patients.

Over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone products contain less than 1% hydrocortisone as the active ingredient. More potent topical hydrocortisone strengths, which are 1% or more, require a prescription from your veterinarian.

In certain circumstances, your vet may recommend a compounded oral formulation of hydrocortisone. Compounded medications are prescribed if there’s a specific reason your pet’s health can’t be managed by an FDA-approved drug, such as if your pet has trouble taking pills in capsule form, the dosage strength is not commercially available, or the pet is allergic to an ingredient in the FDA-approved medication.

Compounded medications are not FDA-approved. They are created by either a veterinarian or a licensed pharmacist on an individual basis to best suit a patient’s particular needs. You can learn more about compounded medications here.

Hydrocortisone Considerations for Dogs

It is important to note that steroids including hydrocortisone can weaken a dog’s immune system, which may make it harder for a sick pet to fight an infection. Hydrocortisone should not be used in dogs with certain medical conditions such as fungal infections or in dogs who are hypersensitive to it.

 Some formulations of hydrocortisone should not be used in or on newborn puppies and kittens. Giving hydrocortisone with certain medications can result in health risks to your pet, so it’s always important to discuss your pet’s medications and medical conditions with your veterinarian first.

How Hydrocortisone Works in Dogs

The exact mechanism for how hydrocortisone reduces inflammation and itching is not completely understood. It is theorized that when topical hydrocortisone is applied on your dog’s skin, it blocks the activation of certain proteins that are responsible for inflammation in the area where it was applied.

Hydrocortisone blocks the harmful effects of inflammation when the immune system is inappropriately overreactive in certain medical conditions such as allergies and swelling.

The injectable and oral forms of hydrocortisone are used when emergency steroid support is needed during an Addisonian crisis, which is a life-threatening condition where there are dangerously low levels of cortisol in the body.

Hydrocortisone Directions for Dogs

Topical hydrocortisone can be the sole active ingredient in a spray or cream, or part of a combination product that includes other ingredients such as antibiotics or antifungals.

The directions for administration of hydrocortisone in dogs depend on the area of the body that is being treated and the formulation of hydrocortisone being used. Please follow all directions on the drug label or as provided by your veterinarian.

Administering Hydrocortisone for Dogs

Topical Hydrocortisone

If you are using hydrocortisone topical spray, do not spray on ulcerated or burned skin.

Do not allow your pet or other pets to lick the medication until after the area dries at least 30 minutes after application.

Do not allow topical hydrocortisone to get into your pet’s eyes, mouth, or nose.

If you are applying hydrocortisone drops to your pet’s ear, check with your veterinarian first to ensure your pet’s ear drum is not ruptured.

Oral Hydrocortisone

Always provide your pet with plenty of water when they are taking hydrocortisone capsules.

Oral hydrocortisone can be given with or without food, but giving it with food can decrease the risk of an upset stomach.

If your veterinarian recommends that you discontinue a compounded oral form of this medication for your dog for any reason, wean your pet off the medication slowly, under a veterinarian's supervision, especially if your pet has been taking hydrocortisone long-term.

Missed a Dose?

Speak with your veterinarian about what to do if you forget to give a dose of hydrocortisone. Generally, your vet may advise you to give it when you remember. However, if it is almost time for your next dose, your veterinarian may instruct you to skip the missed dose and resume your normal dosing schedule. In most cases, your veterinarian may instruct you to not give extra or double doses.

Possible Side Effects of Hydrocortisone in Dogs

Irritation at the application site is the most common reaction with topical hydrocortisone for dogs. Skin irritation may appear as redness, blistering, peeling, swelling, itching, or hives.

Long-term use of topical and oral hydrocortisone may cause:

  • Thinning of the skin

  • Increased thirst

  • Increased urination

  • Increased appetite

  • Hair loss

  • Decreased muscle mass

  • Pot-bellied appearance

Administering ear medication when your pet’s eardrum is ruptured can cause serious side effects including sudden hearing loss, ear pain, head tilt, and walking in circles. Always have your dog’s eardrum examined by a vet before starting them on any topical ear medications or over-the-counter treatments.

Corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone that are administered orally or by injection to pregnant animals may induce premature birth if used during the last trimester of pregnancy. Additionally, this medication has resulted in birth defects when used in pregnant pets. Speak with your veterinarian if your pet is breeding or pregnant.

Human Side Effects

Different dosages of topical hydrocortisone are used in humans and there can be different side effects. Pregnant women, individuals allergic to hydrocortisone, or those sensitive to topical medications should wear gloves when handling their dog’s topical hydrocortisone and wash their hands after exposure.

If you accidentally ingest topical or oral hydrocortisone or develop any skin irritation where you have touched this product, seek medical attention or call the national Poison Control Center hotline at 800-222-1222. 

Monitoring

No specific monitoring is required for this medication, but your veterinarian may recommend routine testing depending on your pet’s individual needs, other medications they may be on, or the issue that initially caused your pet to be placed on this medication.

Call Your Vet If:

  • Severe side effects are seen (see above)

  • Your pet’s condition worsens or does not improve with treatment

  • You see or suspect an overdose

  • Call your vet or pharmacist if you have additional questions or concerns about the use of hydrocortisone

Hydrocortisone Overdose Information for Dogs

Topical forms of hydrocortisone are to be applied on external skin only. Avoid contact with your dog’s eyes and mouth. If you accidentally get topical hydrocortisone into your dog’s eyes or mouth, contact your veterinarian immediately.

When large amounts of topical corticosteroids are applied on a dog’s skin they can be absorbed into the body, although this is rare. It may cause side effects such as increased thirst or urination, vomiting, or diarrhea.

If you suspect an overdose, immediately seek emergency veterinary care or contact an animal poison control center. Consultation fees often apply.

Pet Poison Helpline (855) 764-7661

ASPCA Animal Poison Control (888) 426-4435

Hydrocortisone Storage for Dogs

Hydrocortisone should be stored at a controlled room temperature from 68 F to 77 F. Always confirm storage requirements by reviewing the label.

Compounded medications should be stored according to the compounding pharmacy’s label.

Keep this medication tightly closed in its original container when not in use.

Keep out of reach of children and pets.

Hydrocortisone FAQs

Is hydrocortisone safe for dogs?

Hydrocortisone can be used safely in dogs in very specific circumstances and under the direct supervision of your veterinarian.

It is best to discuss your pet’s medications and medical conditions with your veterinarian before giving hydrocortisone, as there may be health risks to your pet if they are hypersensitive to it, if they have certain medical conditions, or if they are taking certain medications.

Your veterinarian will determine whether this medication is right for your pet, based on their symptoms and circumstances.

Can I use human hydrocortisone cream on my dog?

Products containing hydrocortisone that are intended for humans are not recommended for dogs or cats. There are distinct differences between human and animal hydrocortisone products.

Speak with your veterinarian about which product is right for your pet, as your vet may find it best to use an FDA-approved pet product when treating dogs or cats.

Can you use over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream on your dog?

Hydrocortisone is commercially available in many formulations, including over-the-counter cream products made specifically for dogs to treat certain skin conditions.

It is important to note that human formulations of topical hydrocortisone, including human over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, is for human use only. It is not FDA-approved for use in animals

Use of any over-the-counter hydrocortisone product formulated for pets, must first be evaluated by your veterinarian to ensure its safety and appropriateness. Always contact your veterinarian if improvement is not noted within 1-2 days.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Pekic

No vet writer or qualified reviewer has received any compensation from the manufacturer of the medication as part of creating this article. All content contained in this article is sourced from public sources or the manufacturer


Stephanie Howe, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Stephanie Howe, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Stephanie Howe graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011, after receiving a Bachelor of Science...


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