A sleepy snake and an inquisitive dog are a bad combination. If the worst happens and the snake bites, would you know what to do?
It’s a beautiful summer’s day for a walk in the woods. The dog runs ahead; tail up and nose down. His front end soon disappears into the bushes. Then, suddenly, the dog screams in pain. A snake slithers away, your heart pounds at the horrible realization of what’s just happened. Worse still, you’re miles from help… What to do?
Stay Calm and Think!
Easier said than done but sound advice, because when you’re agitated the dog picks it up. This increases his heart rate and circulates the venom faster…So, deep breath, calm yourself and think.
If it helps you keep calm, know that not every snake bite releases venom. For starters some snakes are non-venomous, whilst others may have bitten recently and have no venom left to inject. In fact, it’s estimated between 20 – 50% of all snake bites are ‘dry’ or without venom. So whilst getting to the vet is the best policy, things may not be quite as dire as you first think.
Take a look at the dog and see if you can see puncture marks. After all, he may have trodden on a thorn rather than been bitten. Dogs are most likely to be bitten on the paw or muzzle, as a result of being nosy. So look for paired puncture marks, blood, or swelling.
Those puncture marks give valuable clues as to exactly what happened. After all, it’s undesirable to give antivenin if the dog has a wasp sting.
Get Photo Identification
If you saw the snake attack and if it’s safe to do so, take a photo of the culprit. Stay at a safe distance and on no account try to handle or corner the snake. But a photo can give vital information as to the snake’s species and treatment required.
First Aid for the Dog
In the movies you see people sucking venom out of wounds and applying tourniquets to stop the poison spreading. Do NOT do this. Sucking out venom doesn’t work and will hurt an already distressed dog, and a tourniquet can cause increased tissue death and severe complications such as gangrene. Neither should you apply ice packs or stub a cigarette on the puncture wounds.
Carry your Canine
Instead, get the dog to the car immediately, but don’t allow him to walk. The aim is to keep the dog calm (that word again!) so his heart rate doesn’t accelerate and push the toxin round faster. Simply talk to the dog in a soothing voice and carry him to the car for help.
Lower the Limb
Keep the bitten body part (say the leg or head) lower than the heart to slow the spread of venom. Do this by improvising a support, such as a rolled up blanket or coat, and lay the dog on top with the bitten leg dangling down.
Protect the Airway
A bite to the mouth, tongue, or throat can cause tissue swelling. There’s a risk the swelling blocks the airway and suffocates the dog. Be aware of this risk and be vigilant for the dog struggling to breathe.
If he is, encourage him to lie down and then straighten his head and neck. Open his mouth and pull his tongue out of his mouth or as far forward as you can, to help clear the windpipe.
Regardless of how far distant or close to the vet you are phone ahead. This allows them to plan and source a supply of antivenin as necessary. That means when you arrive at the clinic, they are better placed to give prompt treatment.
If…and Only ‘If’
If you have a friend who can drive while you tend to the dog, consider flooding the bite wound with saline from a first aid kit. This washes away bacterial contamination that could cause an infection or an abscess further down the line.
However, the priority is to get to the vet. Don’t stop to lavage (wash) the punctures if you don’t have help. Or if the dog is in a lot of pain, leave well alone and don’t distress him by touching the area.
Signs of a Snake Bite:
Different snakes have different venoms that affect the body differently. The most immediate sign is marked pain where the dog was bitten. This area may well swell, become red and angry looking, and seep blood.
Next, the dog may go into shock as venom circulates around his body. Then the toxin targets an organ or body system, causing catastrophic shutdown.
Again depending on the snake, on average shock occurs within 4 hours (after this time the risk of a serious snake bite starts to reduce.)
Signs of shock from a snake bite include:
• Shaking and panting
• Heavy salivation or drooling
• Loss of consciousness
Help the dog by keeping him still and warm. If he’s vomiting and drowsy, take care that he doesn’t choke on vomitus by wiping the back of his mouth with a dry cloth.
As time progresses other signs may develop such as:
• Weakness and inability to stand
• Confusion or loss of consciousness
Sadly, there are no home remedies or first aid measures that can reverse these complications. The dog’s best hope is to reach the vet for emergency supportive care and treatment.
How Does the Vet Treat a Snake Bite?
When the species of snake is known, then giving anti-venom may be an option. Not all clinics carry it in stock but get a supply quickly, so phoning ahead to warn the vet is a help.
But antivenin is only part of the story as the dog’s circulation and organs start to shut down. Intensive and aggressive intravenous fluid therapy is required, along with pain relief, steroids, and antibiotics.
Once the dog is out of danger (which can take hours to days) then attention switches to the bite wound and infection control. Complete recovery can take up to three weeks, or longer if there are complications with infection.
Prevention is Better than Cure
There are a number of steps which can reduce the risk of snake bite.
• Clear away leaf debris and undergrowth from the yard, so snakes have no place to hide
• Keep the dog on a leash in high-risk areas, so he can’t go rummaging and disturb a snake
• Be aware of the types of snake in your area (Are they venomous or non-venomous?)
• Brush up on snake identification so that if the worst happens, you better know how serious it is
And finally, if you live in a rattlesnake endemic area, speak to your vet about whether the rattlesnake vaccine is appropriate for your dog. This is a preventative treatment, needing regular repeat injections (every six to 12 months depending on the dog’s exposure to rattlesnakes). So whilst the vaccine won’t resolve an immediate crisis it might avert one in the future.