Summer 2009 Newsletter

Casa Canine

Venomous Snakebites to Dogs

The late April day promised to be perfect. The sun was out, birds were chirping, and flowers were budding in the garden. My dogs were out in the backyard for their morning romp. One by one they came to the kitchen door to be let in for breakfast. The last to show up was Timber, my handsome dark brindle greyhound. As I opened the door, I saw immediately that something was wrong. Timber had a large swelling, the size of a small grapefruit, between his jaw and neck. Blood seeped from puncture marks on the mass. I touched the swelling and Timber yelped in pain. It all added up to one thing - snakebite! From the swelling and blood, the most likely culprit was a rattlesnake. Even thought I live in high desert country, I've rarely seen a rattlesnake, maybe five or six times in 15 years. So Timber's bite caught me by surprise.

I called our veterinarian to alert him to our impending arrival as my husband got Timber into the car. We headed out immediately for the clinic. My heart pounded though I tried to keep calm for Timber's sake. I feared for his life. Would we make it in time to save him? I didn't even know if the veterinarian would be able to help Timber. I had little knowledge about venomous snakebites to dogs. Do you?

What species of venomous snakes live in your area? Do you know how to reduce the chances of your dog being bitten? Would you know what to do if a venomous snake bites your dog? Anyone who lives, hikes or travels with dogs in areas where venomous snakes live should know how to recognize the symptoms of a venomous snakebite, what to do after a bite occurs, and how to prevent snakebites in the first place.

Initial symptoms are swelling at the site of the bite, punctures marks - usually two from the fangs, bleeding, and pain. Toxicity is affected by the age and type of snake, how deep the fangs penetrated, how much venom was injected, the number of bites and where they are located, the size of the snake and the size of the dog. The longer you wait to get treatment, the greater and more serious will be the symptoms. Untreated, death can occur within hours.

Dr. Carolyn Fletcher, a veterinarian at the Aztec Animal Clinic in Albuquerque says, " A venomous snakebite is an emergency situation. Immediate treatment is paramount. The faster you get your dog to your veterinarian, the greater the chances of a positive outcome. If you delay treatment, you put your dog at greater risk for shock and cardiovascular collapse, coagulopathy (excessive bleed because of abnormal clotting), severe infection, tissue necrosis, and a great deal of pain."

If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a venomous snake, keep your dog as still as possible as you transport him to the veterinarian. This will slow down the rate that the venom moves throughout the body. You may have heard about first aid techniques like cutting the puncture site and sucking out the venom, putting ice on the wound or tying a tourniquet around the wound. These will not help your dog and may cause more damage. If you have a cell phone, call ahead to let your animal hospital know you are bringing in a venomous snakebite victim.

It is helpful to know what kind of snake bit your dog. Try to remember what the snake looks like if you see it. But never attempt to handle or go near the snake. If you get bit, you aren't going to be able to help your dog. The dog can be treated even if the type of snake is unknown.

Once you arrive at the animal hospital, treatment will consist of several components. IV fluids, antibiotics, antihistamines and pain medication will be administered. These help prevent shock, fight infection, support the cardiovascular system, and manage the pain. Antivenin is available for rattlesnake and other pit viper snakebites. It is most affective if given within 4 hours of the bite. Antivenin is expensive, not always available, and not always required. The decision to use antivenin should be made on a case-by-case basis by your veterinarian in consultation with you. Depending on the severity of the bite, your dog may require an overnight stay at the animal hospital so that staff can continue to monitor your dog while providing continued IV fluids and medication.

Educate yourself about the types of venomous snakes that live in your area. Know what they look like and where they are likely to be found. There are many helpful websites that identify snakes and their habitats. If you are traveling, camping or hiking this knowledge is also useful.

Snake activity varies according to season. Snakes are cold-blooded animals called reptiles, and require external heat from the sun to keep warm and active. Most types of snakes hibernate in the winter. With the shorter day length, there is insufficient warmth for snakes to be active. Most snakebites occur in the spring and fall when the days are warm and the nights cold.

If you are walking your dog during snake season, spring through fall, keep your dog on a leash. Dogs being curious creatures who interact with the world through their senses of smell, love to stick their noses into holes, dens and burrows on the ground and under trees. A poke into the wrong hole can result in a snakebite. If your dog is out in your backyard and seems particularly interested in something on the ground, check it out. It may be a snake.

Most snakes, including rattlesnakes, would prefer to escape unseen by passing hikers or dogs. You may have walked right by a rattler and not even noticed it. Rattlesnakes do offer a warning rattle. Although most bites to dogs occur when they are using their noses to investigate a snake or hole in the ground, it is also possible to inadvertently step on or walk too close to one, and a rattler will bite without rattling. Hiking at night in the dark is a bad idea, especially in the summer as rattlers are more active at night than the extremely hot summer days. Keep your eyes as well as your ears open.

A vaccine is available to protect your dog from the severe effects of rattlesnake bites. If you live where rattlers are prevalent, you may want to discuss whether the vaccine is right for your dog. The vaccine seems to lessen the effects of a bite, although supplementary treatment may still be necessary.

In some parts of the country rattlesnake avoidance training is available. You can check for classes offered in your area.

Fortunately, we got Timber to the veterinary hospital within a half hour of his bite. He received a single bite to his neck that just missed his jugular vein! He required overnight hospitalization for extended IV fluid therapy and came home with prescriptions of antibiotics and pain medication. He survived with no permanent damage. The good news is that 80-90% of dogs who receive prompt treatment after a venomous snakebite will recovery completely. Even if you are not sure if your dog's bite was from a venomous snake, err on the side of caution and get your dog to your veterinary hospital ASAP. Our dogs are important members of our families and they deserve to be given the best chances for a full recovery.

Did you know?

Most rattlesnake bites occur in spring and early fall.

Most dogs are bitten in the face/nose area.

If treated within a few hours, 80-90% of dogs survive.

A snake strike is 4 times faster than a person can react to it.

The striking distance of a snake is about 2/3 of a snake's body length.


Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, dogs and horses.

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