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How to Treat Canine Snakebites

dog and snake on stump 
Snakes will try to avoid your pet, but still stick to open paths while walking, and keep your dog at your side. Photo by iStock/sbrogan
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I sometimes see snakes on my property, and I’m worried that one of them will strike my dog. How can I identify and treat a canine snakebite?

A canine snakebite isn’t always easy to diagnose, especially if it’s an unobserved bite and your pet has a heavy coat of hair that could hide wounds. With pit viper bites, you can usually see single or multiple bleeding puncture wounds. The initial symptoms are marked swelling, which is due to tissue destruction and body fluid “leaking” into the damaged area. Clinical signs may develop immediately or could be delayed for several hours. Bruising and skin discoloration often occur within hours of the bite because the venom prevents blood from clotting. There is usually intense and immediate pain at the site of the bite (which helps differentiate snakebites from other causes of swelling), and swelling is generally progressive for up to 36 hours. You might also see collapse, vomiting, muscle tremors, and depression in breathing.

Dos and Don’ts

If your pet is bitten by a snake, assume it’s a venomous bite and seek veterinary attention as soon as possible! If the swelling isn’t in your pet’s face, then muzzle your pet (if you can do so safely) to avoid being bitten. Snakebites are very painful, and even the gentlest pet may unintentionally snap at you. If the swelling is in your dog’s face, avoid touching this area. Immobilize the part of your pet that has been bitten by the snake, if this can be done safely, and try to keep the area at or below the level of your pet’s heart. Try to keep your pet calm and immobile, and carry it if necessary.

Don’t try to suck out the venom! Don’t attempt to “make an X” and cut open the area around the bite (you will only create a wound). Don’t bother to use a snakebite kit or extractor pump (they’ll actually do more harm to your pet — and your wallet). Don’t apply ice to the area; this will constrict the blood vessels locally and concentrate the venom, causing severe muscle damage. Don’t rub any substances into the bite; the venom will have entered the bloodstream, and any substance applied topically will be ineffective. Don’t apply a tourniquet; you’ll only succeed in causing further tissue damage and possibly necessitate a limb amputation. Don’t allow your pet to move about freely.

And finally, don’t attempt to capture the snake for later identification!

Snakebite Prevention

To try to avoid canine snakebites altogether, stay on open paths while hiking with your pet. Keep your pet on a leash away from high grass and rocky outcrops, where snakes like to rest. Don’t let your pet explore holes or dig under rocks.

Keep an open ear for that telltale rattling noise. If you hear it, keep your pet at your side until you determine where the sound is coming from, and then move slowly away. If you see a snake that sees you, remember that a snake can strike only a distance of half its body length; give the snake time to just go away, as it won’t be looking to interact with you or your pet.

Don’t let your pet examine a dead snake, as it can still envenomate.

Around your home, cut off the snakes’ food supply and shelter by mowing close to your house, storing firewood away from your house, plugging up holes in the ground, and limiting birdseed waste, which can attract rodents, and thus snakes, to your yard.

Canine Snakebite Treatment

Because the onset of clinical symptoms can be delayed for several hours, all pets that have been bitten by a snake should be hospitalized for at least 12 hours and ideally for 24 hours. Although most pets generally need to be supported and monitored after a snakebite, the vast majority (95 percent) do survive with early and proper treatment.

Antivenom is the only proven treatment against pit viper envenomation, and the earlier it’s administered, the more effective its action will be. The biggest downside to antivenom is cost — it can range anywhere from $450 to $700 per vial. Usually a single vial will control the envenomation, but several vials may be necessary, even in small dogs or cats.

Blood work is also recommended to monitor your pet’s platelet count as well as its blood’s clotting times. Intensive pain management, IV fluid support, antibiotics, and wound monitoring are required for best clinical outcomes. Blood and plasma transfusions are also sometimes needed in severe envenomation.

There is a snakebite vaccine that may be useful, but no controlled studies have evaluated its effectiveness. A popular myth is that vaccinated pets won’t need to be treated if they’re bitten; this isn’t true, and your pet will still require the same treatment whether it received a vaccine or not.

Thankfully, most snakes will try to avoid you and your pets and typically will only bite as a last resort. But if your pet does happen to get bitten by a snake you think might be venomous, err on the side of caution and get medical treatment immediately.