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How to treat snakebites on dogs

Dog holding snake in mouth advice

Dog bitten by a snake, here is what you should do.

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With their playful and hunting instincts, dogs are more likely to encounter and engage with snakes than us humans. But since snakebites can be deadly, what treatments are available if this happens to your pet?

By Dr. Pete Wedderburn, BVM&S CertVR MRCVS

Updated on the 19/11/2020, 21:36

Dogs are more likely to be bitten by snakes compared to humans. The natural instinct of a snake when disturbed (by human or animal) is to get away: they do not want to engage in confrontation. When we humans encounter a snake, we also want to get away – we know that they can be dangerous. In contrast, dogs often have a strong instinct to engage with a snake: to play with them or to hunt them. The snake will then be defensive and, understandably, they may strike out and bite.

Some snakes are harmless, but others can be highly venomous, so snakebites can be life-threatening to dogs. Prompt and effective treatment can be genuinely life-saving.

The symptoms, causes, diagnosis and first aid all depend on individual aspects of the bite, but this article offers general advice to dealing with the most common aspects of this type of emergency.

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Preventing snakebites is the best strategy

Venomous snakes have well-known, well-established geographical distributions, so the first step is to establish the threat in any area that you may be visiting. For example, there are no snakes in Ireland (including Northern Ireland), the adder (viper) is the only venomous snake in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), while in North America and Australia, there are multiple possibilities, depending on the precise location. Do your research if visiting a new area, so that you know what to expect. Bites occur more often in warmer months, when snakes are more active.

When out walking with your dog in an area where there may be snakes, take simple steps to protect your dog. Keep your dog on a leash, avoid areas of long grass, or dry, rocky areas where snakes are more common. It’s generally best to stick to established paths, rather than walking through untouched countryside. Be aware of the risk at all times, so that if your dog shows sudden interest in a rustle in the grass beside you, you don’t let them poke their nose in, just in case a snake is lurking.

If you do encounter a snake, try to move in the opposite direction with your dog, or even just stay still. And if your dog approaches a snake that looks dead, remember that snakes can pretend to be dead, and they might “wake up” at the last minute. It’s safest just to keep your dog away.

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How do you know if your dog has been bitten by a snake?

Sometimes, it’s obvious: you see the snake, you witness the interaction and you just know that your dog has been bitten by a snake.

Other times, the first sign of a possible snakebite could be your pet showing signs of the physical trauma of being bitten (yelping, crying etc) along with evidence of a bite (a mark on the skin or mouth). Or you may not notice anything until a later stage (minutes or hours later) when the signs of snakebite toxicity become apparent.

Will a dog yelp if bitten by a snake?

The snakebite is a physical injury, like two needles at the end of a hammer being stuck into the skin. And there is the shock aspect of it too: a snakebite is never expected. For this reason, many dogs yelp when bitten by a snake. However some stoical dogs may not react in this way, and if you are some distance from your dog, you may not hear their yelp. You cannot assume that your dog has not been bitten just because you did not hear any vocalisation from them. Snakebites usually leave the characteristic two-puncture mark at the bite site, which can be a useful extra way of diagnosing what has happened.

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How long after a snakebite will a dog show signs of poisoning?

The delay between snakebite and signs of poisoning vary significantly, depending on a number of factors, including type of snake, amount of venom injected with the bite, the location of the bite and the size of the dog. After the initial pain reaction, the toxic effects may occur at once, increasing over the following hours. Swelling may even take a few days to develop to the maximal extent in some cases.

What are the signs of poisoning due to a snakebite?

After the pain reaction caused by the physical bite, the signs of poisoning vary depending on factors like the species of snake and the dose per kilogram of venom, plus the location of the bite. Signs may include swelling at the site of the bite, neurological signs (like collapse, twitching, seizures), difficulty breathing and general dullness and unwellness.

Can a dog die from a snakebite?

Snakebites are potentially life-threatening. Some snakebites are lethal, even within minutes. Others are relatively benign, perhaps no worse than a wasp sting. And there are many snakebites that fit at various different points along the spectrum between these two extremes. For the sake of your pet’s safety, if your pet has been bitten, you should presume the worst, seeking veterinary help as soon as possible so that any risk is kept to a minimum.

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Can dogs survive a snakebite without treatment?

People sometimes ask if all snakebites are deadly, and the truth is that, no, they aren’t. However it can be difficult to predict if a particular snakebite is relatively benign or highly dangerous.

There are many variables involved when a dog is bitten by a snake: what species of snake was it, the amount of venom injected into the dog with the bite, how big the dog is (small dogs are more vulnerable, as the dose of poison per kilogram is higher). A large dog, bitten by a relatively non-venomous snake, may survive easily, while a highly venomous snake can easily cause the death of that same dog. It is safest to take urgent action whenever a dog is bitten by a snake.

Does Benadryl work for snakebites, and if so, how much should I give?

Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) is an anti-histamine, and while it may give some relief from a range of insect and snakebites, it is not safe to presume that this will be in any way effective for a snakebite. If your dog is bitten by a snake, you need to urgently get them to a vet, or at the very least, call a veterinarian on the telephone, so that you can get professional advice immediately.

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How else can you treat a snakebite on a dog at home?

Other than washing the area of the bite to remove any venom from the surface of the skin, there is little that you can do other than getting your pet to the vet as soon as possible. Old ideas of “sucking the poison out” or “immobilising” or even “applying a tourniquet” or other methods to stop the spread of the venom are unlikely to make any difference, and may even make things worse.

What do you do if your dog gets bitten by a rattlesnake, a coral snake or a cobra?

There is no point in giving out specific information about a particular type of snake online: the treatment approach has to be carried out by a veterinarian, and so the best advice remains to simply get your pet to the vet as soon as possible. Veterinarians are well-informed about the snakes in their local area, and they will be familiar with giving advice and treatment. It does make sense to try to identify the snake, either via a photograph or, if the snake has died, by bringing the body to the vet. Do not try to chase or catch the snake, however, as you may just end up being bitten yourself.

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What is a dry bite from a snake?

A dry bite is a bite where no poison is injected, either by a venomous snake that for some reason does not include poison in the bite, or by a non-venomous snake. A dry bite still causes a physical injury, with bruising and pain, and there is a risk that the bite may become infected. For this reason, it is still safest to seek veterinary assistance.

Can you vaccinate against snakebites?

In some parts of the world where there are many venomous snakes, a snakebite vaccine may be available, with the idea that the vaccine may stimulate the immune system to produce protective antibodies that may neutralise the venom. However evidence for the efficacy of such vaccines remains somewhat controversial.

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Veterinary treatment of snakebites

The cornerstone of veterinary treatment of snakebites is antivenom, which is a commercially produced serum that neutralises the toxic effects of the snake venom. The antivenom must be specific for each type of snake, so identification of the snake is important. This treatment is costly and there may be some side effects, but it is the most effective way of treating animals that have been bitten by highly venomous snakes. Other treatment is usually given, depending on the signs that the dog is showing. This includes pain relief, treatment for shock (such as intravenous fluids) and antibiotics if bite puncture wounds are infected.