Saturday, April 28, 2012

Protect Your Dog From Snake Bites

by Jennifer Coates, DVM

Do you live in or travel to areas that are home to venomous snakes? 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.

Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) with clearly visible facial pits.
Image: Wikipedia
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 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.

Rattlesnake. Image: Wikipedia

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 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.

Copperhead snake. Image: Wikipedia
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 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. 

Water Moccasin. Image: Wikipedia
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.


Jennifer Coates, DVM graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999.  In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado.  She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms: Vet-speak Deciphered for the Non-veterinarian

Dr. Coates has recently joined the PetMD team and she is now writing for the Fully Vetted column; great blog, do check it out.

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics.  Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.

Articles by Dr. Coates:
Kidney Disease – Say What? 
What Happens In The Dog's Body When The Kidneys Fail To Function Properly? 
The Perplexities of Pancreatitis
The Other Side Of The Coin: The Cost Of Defensive Medicine
To Neuter Or Not To Neuter… That Is The Question
Don’t Forget the Physical Therapy
Common Misdiagnoses (Part 1)
Common Misdiagnoses (Part 2)
Picking the Right Dog to Breed
When Is It An Emergency?
Dog Allergies: Common, Commonly Misdiagnosed, or Both? 
Why Does The Spleen Get No Respect?

Related articles:
The Assumption Trap: Tosha's Snake Bite 

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