You are out for an enjoyable hike when it happens: your dog manages to find a snake nestled in the rocks. Although you call him back, it is too late. He yelps and comes back limping. This is the first time you have ever had to deal with a snake biting your dog. What do you do now?
Why Do Snakes Bite Dogs?
It is quite easy when your beloved pet has been hurt by a wild animal to immediately blame the critter for the injury. However, most animals—snakes included—will only attack a much larger creature, like a dog, if they feel threatened.
Curious dogs can approach snakes quickly and often come in quite close, making the snake afraid. The snake’s natural reaction is to strike back which results in a bite to your pet. Although it is unfortunate if your dog gets injured, both parties played a role, and the snake most likely acted out of fear.
Fortunately, snake bites to dogs are relatively rare. They usually occur with dogs that hike and explore extensively in rocky areas. Also, many snakes present in North America are nonvenomous. Although a bite may be very painful, no toxin is injected with the wound and severe reactions are uncommon. This isn’t always the case, however.
Signs of a Snake Bite on a Dog
Snake bite symptoms can vary greatly depending on the location of the bite and the species of the snake. The most common signs include swelling, bruising, and pain at the site of the bite. If the snake was not venomous, this is likely the extent of the problem.
If the snake was venomous, the signs may progress to include extensive swelling that spreads rapidly and includes bloody discharge at the site of the bite. The toxin will often lead to shock, which can include:
Changes in breathing (either slower or faster than usual)
Signs typically worsen with time as more organs and systems become affected.
It is important to realize that actual bite marks—or fang holes—may or may not be seen. Very small or young snakes may not leave easily visible wounds, so it is not safe to assume that if you do not find marks on your dog, it has not been bitten. When in doubt, have your dog checked out. Dogs are smaller than people, so a snake that is venomous to humans is even more so to dogs.
How To Treat a Snake Bite on a Dog
Dogs that have been bitten by a snake need to be seen by a veterinarian immediately, whether that snake was venomous or nonvenomous.
If your dog was bitten by a snake, remove the dog as quickly as you safely can, and carry them to the car (it is better to not allow them to walk on their own even if they are able). Take a photo of the snake (if you can do so safely) and call the nearest veterinarian to find out if they are able to treat your dog right away.
If possible, send a photo for identification. The exact treatment involved will depend on the species of snake, and a proper medication can be chosen more easily if the snake species is known. Rattlesnake and coral snake bites are best treated with antivenom, and calling the veterinary hospital ahead of time to see if they have—or can rapidly get—antivenom is a helpful time saver.
En Route to Veterinarian for Snake Bite
During travel to the veterinary hospital, keep the bitten part of the dog below the level of the heart, if possible, because this will slow the spread of toxins. Keep yourself and your pet calm. Remember, most snakes are not venomous, but immediate treatment is still the key to a good outcome.
Studies have shown that giving first aid to dogs before taking them to the veterinary hospital does not reduce the amount of care needed nor will it improve the eventual outcome. It is far better to spend that time getting veterinary help as quickly as possible and skipping doing your own first aid for dogs that have been bitten.
How Veterinarians Treat Snake Bites on Dogs
Treatment at the emergency hospital will depend dramatically on the species of snake involved, the location of the bite, and the severity of the signs. For example, treatment for a bite on the paw by a nonvenomous snake might only require cleaning the wound and giving antibiotics and pain medications. But a more severe bite to the face from a rattlesnake will need much more extensive treatment and hospitalization.
Moderate to severe bite wounds often need longer hospital visits, commonly ranging from eight to 48 hours (and sometimes longer). These dogs need treatment for the bite locally (such as treating the wound, preventing infection, and addressing pain) but also for the systemic side effects of shock and organ compromise.
Common treatments include IV fluid therapy to help support blood pressure and treat shock. If the species of snake is venomous and an antivenom is available, this will be the cornerstone of therapy. Supportive care often includes pain medication and sometimes antibiotics and antihistamines. Other treatments may be necessary depending on the exact clinical signs your dog shows. Of highest concern are animals that show neurologic (nervous system) problems or breathing distress, in which case a ventilator may be needed. Many pet patients need multiple blood tests to track organ functioning and the progress of therapy.
Luckily, most dogs do survive snake bites—even of the venomous variety—with prompt and aggressive treatment.
Types of Snake Bites on Dogs
The types of snakes likely to be involved in a snake bite incident will depend on the part of the country you live in, the lifestyle of your dog, and the resident populations of snakes. Some regions may only have the common garter snake as a concern for snake bites, while others have a variety of venomous snakes.
Of largest concern are the rattlesnakes, followed by coral snakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads. But regardless of the snake involved, the key to survival is still fast and proper treatment. If your dog was bitten by a snake, seek veterinary care as quickly as possible.
Featured Image: iStock.com/rightdx
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