Spring has my mind wandering outdoors, thinking of the many wonderful hikes I used to share with my beloved dog, Katie, who sadly recently passed away. While I miss her terribly, I also look back fondly on the many, many great adventures we had over 15 years together. One that I vividly recall is a when we crossed paths with a snake. Luckily, all three of us escaped unharmed (though I think I gained a few grey hairs that day)!
Snakes generally do their best to avoid humans and our animal companions, and likewise, I do my best to avoid them! However, the same cannot be said for cats and dogs, who may find the temptation to antagonize snakes greater than they can resist. As a result, snake bites are not uncommon in both cats and dogs.
As you know, not all snakes are venomous. If your pet has been bitten by a snake and you are unsure of what kind of snake was the culprit, seek veterinary care immediately. In the United States, venomous snakes are either coral snakes or pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. Most snake bites in this country are from copperheads, but the majority of fatalities are due to rattlesnake bites.
What to do after your pet has been bitten by a snake
Signs of snakebites may not occur for several hours after they occur, but if you have witnessed your pet being bitten, get her to a veterinary facility right away. The sooner treatment can start, the better off your pet will be.
Snakebites cause a variety of clinical signs, most notably and obviously pain and swelling at the bite wound. Venom has many different types of toxins, each affecting pets in a different way. Neurotoxins will cause progressive paralysis of the respiratory muscles, while myotoxins directly affect the muscles, causing weakness and pain. In addition, venom contains potent anti-coagulants, which prevent the blood from clotting.
Other signs of a snakebite include:
- Respiratory distress
- Muscle tremors or severe muscle weakness
- Uncontrolled bleeding
The prognosis for a snake bite can vary widely. The size and age of the snake, its motivation for biting and amount of venom regeneration since the snake’s last bite are all factors. The location of the bite and the size of the victim count, too. It is important to remember that the severity of the local signs do not always correlate with the severity of the bite, so even if the bite looks “minor” on a large dog, it is important to seek veterinary help anyway. Alternatively, I remember one tiny Yorkie with a terrible-looking bite on his neck who pulled through like a champion!
Snake bite treatments for pets
Treatment centers on neutralizing the toxins in the snake’s venom as well general supportive care for the snakebite victim. Anti-venin is available to neutralize venom, but it is snake-specific, so the type of snake will need to be known. Anti-venin is also very expensive and can be difficult to locate, depending on your proximity to a human hospital or the frequency of snakebites in your area. When Petplan pet insurance family member Debra's one year old German Shepherd, Cory, was bitten by a water moccasin in Florida, the treatment cost her family over $8,500 ($7,600 of which was reimbursed by Cory's dog insurance policy from Petplan).
An average hospital stay to treat a snake bite is generally two days, during which time your pet will receive IV fluids to combat shock, and antibiotics, as well as other supportive treatments as needed.
As with most other things in veterinary medicine, prevention is key. This is a prime example of the importance of teaching “Leave it!” to your dog. In addition, when hiking with your pets, stay on the trail and avoid high grass. Don’t allow curious dogs to explore holes or dig under logs – they dig up more than they (or you) bargained for!