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Insect Bites and Stings in Dogs

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Bites on dogs, including fleas, ticks, certain spiders, and bee stings are common causes of bite reactions in pets.  Some dog bites cause no more than a mild annoyance, while others can cause a serious condition.

The most common signs of an insect bite reaction on a dog include swelling and redness at the site of the bite, “hives,” or a swollen face or muzzle.  However, just like people, some dogs can become sensitive to the proteins contained in the saliva or venom of biting insects.  These allergic individuals can develop severely inflamed skin, vomiting, breathing difficulties, and (rarely) death.  Allergy to fleas is very common and usually shows up as severe itching over the rump, from even a single bite (see also Fleas).

Diagnosis is based on the specific signs of illness and/or a history of a bite.  In some cases, your veterinarian may take a blood sample to look for eosinophils, which are a type of white blood cell associated with allergic reactions.  Other tests may be needed depending on the severity of the reaction.

Bites on dogs, including fleas, ticks, certain spiders, and bee stings are common causes of bite reactions in pets.  Some dog bites cause no more than a mild annoyance, while others can cause a serious condition.

The most common signs of an insect bite reaction on a dog include swelling and redness at the site of the bite, “hives,” or a swollen face or muzzle.  However, just like people, some dogs can become sensitive to the proteins contained in the saliva or venom of biting insects.  These allergic individuals can develop severely inflamed skin, vomiting, breathing difficulties, and (rarely) death.  Allergy to fleas is very common and usually shows up as severe itching over the rump, from even a single bite (see also Fleas).

Diagnosis is based on the specific signs of illness and/or a history of a bite.  In some cases, your veterinarian may take a blood sample to look for eosinophils, which are a type of white blood cell associated with allergic reactions.  Other tests may be needed depending on the severity of the reaction.

Bee stings are common in the spring and summer.  Dogs are usually bitten on the muzzle, because of their tendency to sniff and bite at things.  The lips or muzzle may swell, and allergic pets may have more serious reactions.  Dogs often paw at or rub any swollen areas.

Most spiders in North America are not poisonous, so bites generally cause only localized pain and swelling.  However, one particularly serious exception is the brown recluse (or fiddleback) spider.  The brown recluse spider hides in dark areas associated with wood piles, outdoor sheds, dog houses, etc.  The venom from the bite of a brown recluse tends to spread slowly, killing off tissue and leaving a dark ulcer.  Such ulcers are slow to heal and can lead to more serious problems.

Ticks, biting flies, and mosquitoes can cause red swollen areas of the skin, which itch and can sometimes become infected.  Fly bites can pose a special nuisance to outdoor pets.  Fly bites can cause crusty bumps or sores, especially around the ears or face, that can become infected if left untreated.

Treatment for insect bites typically consists of removing the stinger (if a bee sting), cleaning the wound, and administering appropriate medications.  Antihistamines are usually given to combat any allergic reactionTopical creams/lotions containing corticosteroids and/or antibiotics can be used to provide local relief for the skin.  In more serious conditions, oral medications or emergency injections (eg, epinephrine) may be needed to combat allergic shock.  Dogs that have severe allergic reactions may need intravenous fluids and a stay at the veterinary hospital.

Prevention includes routine use of monthly flea and tick products.  Topical repellents are also available, but be sure to check with your vet before combining these with other products.  Control of pests in your pet’s local environment (eg, yard, run, etc) can help limit bites as well.  Your vet can help you design a control program that fits you and your pet.

Q&A

What kind of insect bites can bother my pet?

The bites (or stings) of fleas, ticks, certain spiders, and bees are common causes of bite reactions in pets.  


What pets are most severely affected?

Just like people, some pets can become sensitive to the proteins contained in the saliva or venom of biting insects.  Once bitten, these allergic individuals can develop severely inflamed skin, vomiting, breathing difficulties, and (rarely) death.  


Where on the body are bite reactions likely to occur?

Location depends somewhat on the type of insect involved.  Bee stings usually occur around the paws, face, or muzzle, as curious pets use their mouth and paws to investigate this insect.  Flea reactions usually occur over the rump.  


Do insect bites represent a serious emergency?

May mild bites can be treated with antihistamines and topical creams/lotions containing corticosteroids.  Pets having a strong allergic reaction, especially one that interferes with breathing, should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.  

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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