By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
It’s a sunny afternoon in the backyard and your dog is happily prancing about, seeming to snap at bits of dust in the air. After a couple of minutes of this, he sits on the grass and starts pawing his face. That’s when you realize it isn’t dust motes he’s going after—it’s bees, and he just found out what happens when you get one in your mouth.
Dogs are particularly prone to this unpleasant encounter because they explore the world with their noses, bringing them in close proximity to bees, wasps, and hornets. While we humans often get stung on our extremities, dogs experience a disproportionate number of stings right to the face. If they are exceptionally unlucky and their exploring brings them in contact with a nest, they can be the victim of multiple stings.
What Happens During a Bee Sting?
A honeybee’s barbed stinger is actually a modified ovipositor. When a victim is stung, the stinger remains in the wound, killing the bee. The stinger is fed by a venom sac, which can continue to pump venomous apitoxin into the wound even after the bee has detached. For this reason, it is best to remove the stinger as quickly as possible—which is easier said than done in a pet with lots of fur.
Most bee stings cause localized irritation and pain, so you will notice your pet pawing at his face or licking his toes—the two most common places for them to be stung. If you can locate the stinger, remove it immediately, as it can continue to release venom into the skin for several minutes.
Using a credit card or something similar, it’s best to remove the stinger by using a scraping action, as pinching the stinger can actually squeeze more venom into the wound.
The second most common reaction after pain is localized swelling in the area of the sting. Wash the area with cool water and soap, and apply a cold compress to reduce swelling if the pet will stand for it. Over the counter Benadryl can also be helpful, but make sure to call your vet before administering Benadryl, as the proper dose depends on the weight of the pet. Swelling is usually mild and resolves within a day or two. If the swelling or pain does not improve or continues to worsen, make sure to talk to your veterinarian.
When Should You Take Your Pet to the ER for a Bee Sting?
Having your pet evaluated by a veterinarian is never a wrong choice; if you feel your pet’s swelling and discomfort is significant, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, particularly when swelling in the head area is involved.
Less common but more severe than local inflammation is a true anaphylactic reaction, and this is a medical emergency. Just as in people, some dogs are allergic to bee venom and can have a sudden and life threatening reaction to a sting. These usually happen shortly after the sting—within minutes. Pets may have vomiting and diarrhea, seem disoriented and weak, show difficulty breathing, or even collapse. Their gums turn pale as they lapse into shock.
If your pet exhibits signs of shock, do not hesitate—head to the nearest animal ER.
Oral Benadryl will not help in these severe cases. Pets in shock need an IV catheter, aggressive, fluid therapy, and injectable steroids and antihistamines. They may even require epinephrine. Shock can be reversed if addressed rapidly, but without treatment it is quickly fatal. Fortunately, these reactions are rare.
How to Avoid Bee Stings
Bee stings may be a part of life in the outdoors, but you can take some precautions to reduce the risk of your pet being stung. Bees are attracted to flowering herbs, wildflowers, and fruits and vegetables. If you have these plants in your garden, consider keeping them in a fenced-off area to reduce your pet’s exposure to bees. Bees aggressively protect their hives, but bees out foraging for pollen are generally less likely to sting unless they are directly provoked.
Aside from anaphylaxis in an allergic dog, the biggest risk for pets and bees is enduring multiple stings. With the spread of the more aggressive Africanized bee species, it takes little provocation from a curious dog to result in hundreds or even thousands of stings, which can overwhelm even the sturdiest of dogs.
Africanized honeybees can nest in places their European counterparts don’t, such as chimneys, sheds, lumber piles, downed logs, and even water meters. During swarm season in the spring and summer, bees swarm in search of new places to set up a hive and travel in large groups. This is how we ended up with a hive attempting to set up in a Shop-Vac my husband had left in our courtyard. Fortunately we noticed before our dog did!
Bees forage for water, so keep an eye out for bees near pools and birdbaths. When out on walks and hikes, keep your pet on a lead if he does not have excellent recall, and make sure to call him to you if you hear the tell-tale buzzing of a nearby hive.
While the thought of enduring bee stings is never pleasant, bees are an important part of our ecosystem. If you have a hive in an area your pet frequents, consider consulting a professional pest control service to relocate the hive instead of exterminating it. Better to live in a world with bee stings than a world without bees!
Image credit for stinger removal: Pinner & Ruislip Beekeepers’ Association