Coral Snake Bite Poisoning in Cats

Veronica Higgs, DVM
By Veronica Higgs, DVM on Jun. 20, 2023

What Is Coral Snake Poisoning in Cats?

The two most important venomous snakes in the United States are the pit viper and the coral snake. While coral snake bites are less common than pit viper bites, they are highly venomous (second only to the black mamba). Located in the southern states, coral snakes are from the family Elapidae (called Elapid snakes) and include the Arizona or Sonoran coral snake, Texas coral snake, Eastern coral snake, and South Florida coral snake. 

Coral snakes have short, fixed front fangs and a poorly developed system for venom delivery, which requires them to chew or hang on to inject venom. This venom is neurotoxic, meaning it affects the neurological system, resulting in paralysis, trouble breathing, and collapse. 

A venomous snakebite is an emergency. If you witness or suspect your cat has been bitten by a coral snake, immediately take the cat to the local veterinary emergency hospital.   

Symptoms of Coral Snake Poisoning in Cats

Clinical signs of coral snake bites usually occur within the first few hours, but they can be delayed up to 18 hours after the bite and may persist for several days. Local symptoms such as pain and swelling at the site of the bite are minimal.

The venom primarily affects the neurological system, and the most common clinical signs of coral snake poisoning in cats include:

  • Depression/lethargy

  • Pupils of differing size (anisocoria)

  • Drooling (hypersalivation)

  • Low blood pressure

  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)

  • Muscle twitching

  • Collapse

  • Trouble breathing

  • Paralysis, usually starting in the back legs and moving to the front legs (quadriplegia)

Causes of Coral Snake Poisoning in Cats

Coral snakes predominantly live along the US coastal southern border from North Carolina to Arizona, including all of Florida. Coral snakes are reclusive, shy, and not typically aggressive. They are primarily nocturnal and prefer to spend their time burrowed in leaves. However, cats are very curious and are typically bitten on the face or front feet after batting and harassing the coral snake.  

What Does a Coral Snake Look Like?

Unlike pit vipers, they do not have hollow fangs and have an inefficient system for delivering their venom.  Coral snakes have short, fixed front fangs with small grooves that the venom travels down when they bite. This means they need to chew on their prey to deliver their venom. About 50% of the time, coral snakebites will be “dry bites” meaning venom was not injected.

Coral snakes have black heads and black tails with brightly colored bands of red, yellow, and black scales. Most coral snakes are 2-4 feet in length. 

eastern-coral-snake-in-grassAn eastern coral snake

Photo Credit: Mark Kostich

My Cat Was Bitten by a Coral Snake. What Do I Do?

Identifying a snake and determining if their bite injected venom can be difficult, so snakebites should be considered medical emergencies. Take your pet immediately to the veterinarian if a snakebite was witnessed or suspected. 

Pet parents should not try to capture the snake or risk being bitten; however, when possible, a dead snake should be brought to the veterinarian’s office along with the bitten cat.

It’s important to reduce the spread of venom in the cat’s body by limiting their activity. Carefully put them into a carrier—do not try to hold them or allow them to run around loose in the car—and keep them quiet on the way to the vet. 

Several myths about first aid for snake bites are ineffective and potentially harmful. The following measures should NEVER be attempted: 

  • Ice packs/cooling

  • Any attempt to suck out the venom

  • Incision of the bite

  • Tourniquets

  • hot packs/heating

  • Urinating on the wound

Snakebites require immediate medical attention by your veterinarian. 

Treating Coral Snake Poisoning in Cats

Your veterinarian will collect a history of the event, including eyewitness descriptions of the snake and examining the dead snake or photos of the snake if available. Often snakebites are witnessed, which makes diagnosis more straightforward. However, if unwitnessed, clinical signs and level of suspicion may be needed as there are no diagnostic tests to confirm coral snakebite poisoning.  

Your veterinarian will begin with a thorough physical examination to assess for evidence of puncture wounds, trouble breathing, or paralysis.

Diagnostic tests including a complete blood count, serum, blood chemistry, and urinalysis may be performed. Given that clinical signs can be delayed, all snakebite cases should be monitored in the hospital for 48 hours before assuming it was a “dry” bite or nonvenomous snake. 

Antivenom is the antidote for venomous snakebites. However, currently there is no approved coral snake antivenom in the United States for dogs and cats.  Other snake antivenoms may provide some  cross-reactive protection and should be considered if the cat has severe clinical signs.  Antivenoms are not readily available, and your pet will likely need to be treated at a 24-hour emergency hospital. 

Your cat will likely be started on IV fluids to help maintain blood pressure, as well as pain medications to keep them comfortable. Other therapies may be administered depending on the specific case, and may include antibiotics, anticonvulsants, and oxygen therapy.

Steroids are typically not used in snakebite cases, but your veterinarian will determine the appropriate course of therapy for your specific pet.  Severely affected cats with paralysis or trouble breathing may need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe.

Recovery and Management of Coral Snake Poisoning in Cats

Early and aggressive care is crucial for successful treatment of coral snakebites. The prognosis can vary based on the amount of venom, location of the bite site, time from bite to initiation of treatment, and your pet’s response to therapy.

Most cats with venomous bites will remain hospitalized for 2-4 days for continued supportive care and medications. While most cats that survive go on to live normal lives with minimal long-term side effects, severe clinical signs can last up to 1½ weeks, and cats need to be carefully monitored as outpatients for up to several months after the snakebite. 

Prevention of Coral Snake Poisoning in Cats

Prevention is best when it comes to snake bites in cats. Cats are curious by nature and snakebites frequently occur on their face and front legs due to their desire to investigate when they encounter snakes.

Snakes will generally try to avoid humans and pets, but it’s recommended to keep your pet away from common snake resting places such as holes, logs, rocks, and heavy brush or ground cover.  If you live in an area known to have coral snakes, consider keeping your furry friend indoors at all times to prevent snakebites.


Peterson, Michael E. Small Animal Toxicology. 3rd ed. Elsevier Saunders; 2001.

Hovda, Lynn, et al. Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion: Small Animal Toxicology. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons; 2016.

Gwaltney-Brant, Sharon. Snakebites in Animals. Merck Manual. November 2022.


Veronica Higgs, DVM


Veronica Higgs, DVM


Dr. Veronica Higgs is a 2010 graduate from Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine.  She then completed a 1-year rotating...

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