Pit Viper Snake Venom Toxicosis in Cats
Pit vipers are known by several species: Crotalus (rattlesnakes), Sistrurus (pigmy rattlesnakes and massassauga), and Agkistrodon (copperheads and cottonmouth water moccasins). These snakes are of the family Crotalinae, and are recognized for their retractable fangs. They can be distinguished from other snakes by the heat-seeking pit located between the nostril and eye on their triangle-shaped heads. Their range is throughout the continental U.S. Bites most often occur in rural areas where these types of snakes are most frequent.
Toxicity of the venom is considered hematoxic, which means that it causes blood poisoning in the victim. Several species have subpopulations with lethal neurotoxic venoms, meaning that the venom attacks the nervous system (e.g., Mojave rattlesnake). The general ranking of severity is: (1) rattlesnakes, (2) water moccasins, (3) copperheads.
The venom causes local tissue injury and interferes with coagulation of the blood. It also affects the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Eighty-five percent of bite victims have altered laboratory values and clinically important swelling, with severely low blood pressure from the pooling of blood within the nervous system or pulmonary (lung) vessels. Fluid loss is secondary to severe swelling.
Symptoms and Types
In most cats, there are puncture wounds on the head and forelimbs. In addition, symptoms may be delayed for 8 hours after bite, including:
- Local tissue swelling and pain surrounding bite site
- Bruising, with possible dead tissue and sloughing at bite site
- Red patches and spots on tissues and mucous membranes
- Rapid heart beat
- Shallow respiration
- Depression and lethargy
- Excessive salivation
- Low blood pressure and shock
- Bite site - bites to tongue and torso are of major concern
- Size of victim may affect severity of the reaction
- Elapsed time between bite and initiation of treatment will result in increased severity of symptoms
- Activity level of victim after the bite - activity increases absorption of venom in the system
- Owner may see bite marks, or heard the snake nearby at the time of injury (such as with rattlers)
- Venom toxicity is higher in spring, lower in fall; highest in very young snakes.
- Aggressiveness and motivation of snake can increase venom value
You will need to give a thorough history of your cat’s health, recent activities and onset of symptoms. Unless you saw the snake bite your cat, the diagnosis may be complicated by the fact that many other things can cause the same symptoms. For example, insect bite, blunt trauma, penetrating wound, animal bite, penetration of foreign body, or a draining abscess can appear similar to many of the same symptoms as snakebite.
A complete blood profile will be conducted, including a chemical blood profile, a complete blood count, and a urinalysis. Your veterinarian will obtain important information from the blood test and urinalysis. Clotting tests can also indicate the origin of the symptoms, as clotting disorders are often a symptom of snakebite. Your doctor may also conduct an electrocardiogram to evaluate the functioning of your cat’s heart.
First aid measures will include calming your cat and keeping it still, as activity can move the venom through the system more rapidly. Transporting the cat quickly to a veterinary facility is important. There, intravenous fluids can be given to correct low blood pressure; oxygen can be given for breathing difficulties; and transfusions given for severe clotting problems.
If you are sure that your cat is a victim of snakebite, you will need to make this known to your veterinarian so that anti-venom serums can be given. The faster they can be injected, the better chance your cat has of a full recovery. Snakebites are also at risk of infection, warranting antibiotics to prevent infection, and sterile dressings applied to the wound.
Living and Management
Your veterinarian will want to repeat the laboratory analysis six hours after the initial treatment to make sure that your cat is progressing. The clinical signs may last as long as a week-and-a-half as your cat’s system recovers from the toxic reaction.