Snake Bites

What to Do If your Dog Is Bitten By a Snake

By C.D. Watson


What to do if my dog is bitten by a snake?

Trees are budding, flowers are blooming, birds are singing and even the bees are out in full force. It is spring!

Humans and animals alike feel the optimism and energy of the season, and outdoor activities are essential. Time out of doors should be fun-filled and healthy.

Late last spring I let my dogs out for one last potty break before bed. It was about dusk, and I called them back as soon as I felt they had had enough time to take care of business. Normally they race back to the door, ready for their reward.

This particular night they didn’t come when called. I walked to the deck rail and called again. I saw both dogs lying at the foot of the stairs.

I knew immediately something was wrong. I walked down the steps, and the bigger of the two dogs stood. My male Lagotto, Luke, didn’t get up. He whimpered and raised his head.

I looked him over carefully, probing his back and legs, and I saw that his right paw was swollen. When I touched the foot, he yelped. I didn’t see a laceration, so I assumed something had bitten him.

I carried Luke into the house and put him on the tile floor. Fortunately my husband, an emergency physician, was home. We saw two small, bloody puncture wounds on his leg and realized Luke had been bitten by a snake! The swelling was rapidly moving up his leg, and from every appearance he was in shock.

Since Lagottos are still rare in the United States, I was compelled to read everything I could find about the breed before Luke came to our family. One of the many articles I found happened to be about the high incidence of snake bites with Lagottos. In Italy Lagottos are trained to hunt truffles.

The occupational hazard of all that time in the forests, digging through leaves and brush, puts the dogs in frequent contact with snakes. That article inspired me to conduct more research into the threat of snake bites and canines.

A Snake Primer

One of the first rules of first aid of any type is: Be Prepared! The best form of preparation is to understand the potential for emergency and be ready to react. In the case of a snake bite (to human or pet) you should know the variety of venomous snakes in the area where you live or visit.

Four species of venomous snakes are indigenous to the United States:

  1. Copperheads
  2. Rattlesnakes
  3. Cotton mouths/water moccasins
  4. Coral snakes

Most snake bites occur in the Southwestern and Southeastern United States, and not all snakebites contain venom.

Animal medical clinics report more than 150,000 emergency treatments to dogs and cats for snakebites annually. Dogs suffer a much greater incidence of snakebites than other domestic animals. The most common venomous snakes in the United States are crotalidae — copperheads, cotton mouth/water moccasins and rattlesnakes — also referred to as pit vipers. These snakes prefer to live in tall grass, along ponds, streams and marshes, and in rock and wood piles. They are somewhat nocturnal and they love cool, dark dens.

Crotalidae have broad triangular heads with elliptical pupils. Their curved fangs are prominent, and they are marked by a deep “pit” between the eyes and the nostrils — hence the name pit viper. Experts estimate the bite of the pit viper accounts for around 99 percent of snakebites to dogs. Very painful but rarely fatal, the toxicity of the bite of a pit viper depends on the type, age and size of the snake; the amount of venom injected; and the age, size and relative health of the animal bitten.

It is estimated that 90 percent of snake bites occur between the months of April and October. Bites are more frequent on the dog’s legs or head — particularly the muzzle.

Rattlesnake Warning Signs

Know what to look for if you suspect your pet is bitten by a crotalidae snake:

Treating a Rattlesnake Bite on a Dog

Stay calm. If possible, identify the kind of snake responsible for the bite. Restrict your dog’s activity — this will reduce the effect of the venom. Seek immediate veterinary treatment. Your vet can determine the amount of toxicity injected by the reaction of your dog and/or blood tests.

If a veterinarian is not immediately available:

  • Administer diphenhydramine, an antihistamine such as Benadryl, to reduce the allergic reaction from the snake bite.
  • If the bite was to the throat, temporary airway support may be necessary.
  • Medication for pain should be administered.
  • Medication for infection will be necessary.

Seek professional medical treatment as soon as possible. Recovery will depend on response time and treatment. Most dogs survive crotalidae bites with few if any complications.

  • DO NOT use a tourniquet. Restricting the blood flow may cause serious tissue damage.
  • DO NOT cut an “X” and attempt to suck the venom out. Human saliva contains bacteria that can create a greater infection.

Remember, your dog is suffering and may be in shock. Even the most docile dog can bite out of fear and pain. Protect yourself and your pet from additional harm.

Elapidae – Coral Snakes

Elapidae represents the other species of venomous snakes in North America. Coral snakes, cobras, kraits, mambas and hamadryads are all members of the elapidae family.  Of the elapidae, only coral snakes are indigenous to the United States. They are predominant to the Southeast, particularly Texas and Florida.

Coral snakes have very distinct red, yellow and black color patterns. Like all elapine snakes, they have short fangs and “chew” venom into their victims. The venom is neurotoxic and paralyzes the respiratory system. Bites from elapine snakes are very dangerous and often fatal.

As with crotalidae snakes, diagnosis is often difficult to determine unless the attack is witnessed. Knowledge of the area and the potential for coral snake infestation is crucial.

Eastern coral snake

Coral Snake Warning Signs

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Paralysis

Elapidae snake bites do not typically produce a great deal of swelling, and it can take 10 to 18 hours for more serious symptoms to appear.

Treating a Coral Snake Bite on a Dog

  • Seek medical assistance immediately.
  • Restrict your animal’s movement, and keep him calm and quiet.
  • DO NOT apply a tourniquet.
  • DO NOT attempt to suck the venom out.
  • Hospitalization may be required.

Recovery is dependent on the availability of immediate medical intervention and treatment.

Fortunately, snake bites from elapidae are relatively rare, affecting less than 1 percent of the reported cases of bites to dogs. Coral snakes in particular have small heads and are slower to open their jaws wide enough to envenom a dog. Their distinct color is similar to that of the common, nonpoisonous king snake. If you are close enough and brave enough to make the determination, remember:

“Red on yellow, kill a fellow — red on black, venom lack.”

Luke survived his close encounter with the snake. We did not verify the type of viper, but it was most likely a copperhead given the location and time of day. We couldn’t get Luke to the veterinarian for several hours, but thanks to my research and my husband’s training we knew the appropriate steps to take to minimize the trauma. Our vet told us she would have followed the same procedures we took. She prescribed an antibiotic to reduce infection at the puncture site. Luke was back in rare form in a couple of days.

I wish I could say Luke learned a valuable lesson about snakes. I doubt he even knew what bit him! Regardless, dogs do not remember sufficiently to make efforts to avoid snakes after a bite. Their natural curiosity leads them into the very mouth of danger. It is up to owners to remain diligent to protect their pets.

So, please do this:

  • Educate yourself about the presence of poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes in the vicinity.
  • Avoid areas where snake infestation is likely.
  • Leash your dogs when hiking.
  • Enroll your dog in snake avoidance classes.
  • Know what emergency measures to take in the event of a snakebite.

With a little planning, precaution and practice, you and your dog can enjoy a wonderful season outdoors.

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