Do you live in or travel to areas that are home to venomous snakes? Do you know how to protect your dog from snake bites?
I’ve been neighbors with rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins, and have treated dogs that have been bitten by some if not all of these species. These cases can be incredibly rewarding or heartbreaking. It all depends on how much venom is injected by the snake, something we have no control over.
So, let’s address some important issues that we can affect concerning dogs and snake bites.
Know Your Surroundings
Do a little research. What are the common snake species in your area? Are any of them venomous (the vast majority are not)? Learn what the venomous snakes in your region look like and what types of environments they frequent so you can avoid them.
One oft-cited adage states that a snake with vertical pupils is venomous while one with circular pupils is not. This does hold true in most cases, but do you really want to get close enough to an unidentified snake to make this determination? It’s better to get familiar with the skin colors and patterns and head shapes that venomous snakes in your area might have so you can i.d. them from a distance.
A little snake savvy not only protects dogs but the snakes themselves. I can’t tell you the number of times a client has brought in the “rattler” he killed on his farm only to learn that he just offed a benign hognose by mistake.
Remember that given the opportunity, any self-respecting snake will try to “run” away before risking its own well-being by biting. When hiking, walk your dog on a short leash and keep him on the trail. Training classes and the necessary refresher courses that teach dogs to leave snakes alone can also help prevent snake bites. Discourage snakes from making a home in your yard by keeping the grass trimmed short and locating brush piles, stacks of firewood, or other similarly inviting habitats outside your dog’s fenced yard.
You may have heard about the “rattlesnake vaccine” that is now available for dogs. Veterinarians don’t have a lot of experience with it yet, so I can’t really comment on how useful it is. Keep in mind that it is only conditionally licensed for protection against bites from the western diamondback rattlesnake. It may offer some cross-protection against other species of rattlesnakes, but how well it will work under these circumstances is also unclear. If you live rattlesnake country, talk to a local veterinarian about the vaccine’s pros and cons.
Don’t Delay Treatment
The initial symptoms of snake envenomation are rapid swelling and pain around the bite site. Small puncture wounds may or may not be visible. If you suspect that your dog has been bitten by a snake, get him to the veterinarian immediately. If you can safely identify the snake that bit your dog, do so. That information is very helpful in planning treatment.
When presented with a dog that is known or suspected to have been bitten by a venomous snake, veterinarians will typically put the patient on intravenous fluids, start antibiotics to deal with an infection, and prescribe pain relievers and anti-inflammatories to keep the dog comfortable and reduce swelling. If other symptoms develop, additional forms of treatment may become necessary.
Once basic care has been initiated, the question arises whether or not to use antivenin.
Because antivenins are species-specific, we can only use them when we are fairly certain of the type of snake responsible for the bite. Antivenin is expensive, but it may be the only way to save a dog that has received a large dose of venom in comparison to its body weight. The sooner antivenin is given, the better, but it may be helpful up to 72 hours after a bite has occurred.
Many dogs that have been bitten by a venomous snake can be saved with prompt and aggressive treatment.
The key is to get to the clinic quickly while keeping your dog as quiet and inactive as possible. Don’t attempt to remove the venom yourself. Those home-remedies you remember from watching too many old westerns do more harm than good. At the very least, you’ll be wasting precious minutes and delaying the treatment that could save your dog’s life.
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