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Snake Bite Risks to Dogs

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Do you know much about your dog's risk of getting a snake bite? We generally think of poisonous snakes in the jungles of Africa or South America, but poisonous coral snakes and pit vipers are common in North America, especially in the southeast and southwest United States.  Coral snakes have short fangs and tend to “chew” venom into the wound.  Vipers have longer fangs that they use to inject venom deeply into the underlying tissues.  For some good pictures of poisonous snakes, see http://www.backyardnature.net/snakvenm.htm or http://www.venomous.com/.  In general, poisonous snakes can be identified by their pointy, triangular- or arrow-shaped head.


Dogs are especially at risk of snake bites because of their curious nature and because of the relatively small size of some breeds compared with the amount of venom injected.  In fact, fatal snake bites are more common in dogs than in any other domestic animal.


The signs of snake bite depend on the type of snake and the amount of venom injected.  The venom of coral snakes is a nervous-system poison that can interrupt breathing or cause convulsions.  Viper venom causes extensive damage at the site of the bite and widespread shock.  Viper bites tend to swell up and kill off surrounding tissue, resulting in slow-healing wounds that can become seriously infected.


Timely diagnosis is usually based on an owner having witnessed the bite.  A snake bite is a true emergency that requires immediate treatment by a veterinarian.  The first 2 hours are key, with most deaths occurring during this time.  Animals need to be hospitalized for supportive care, antibiotics, and possible treatment with antivenin, an antidote for the snake venom.  Antivenin for the bites of common snakes is often available on an as-needed basis through human hospitals.  Pets that are doing well after 24 hours usually survive, so long as secondary infection can be effectively controlled.  However, even with long-term antibiotic therapy, widespread tissue damage and scarring can remain at the site of infection.  Tissue damage can sometimes be so severe as to claim an entire leg.

 

 

Q&A

Are poisonous snakes found in the United States?

Coral snakes and pit vipers can be found in various parts of the country, especially in the southwestern and southeastern states.


What should I do if I see my pet bitten by a snake?

A snake bite is a true emergency, so take your pet immediately to your veterinarian or a veterinary emergency center.  Emergency treatment involves supportive therapy for shock and administration of antivenin.


What is the prognosis after a snake bite?

Treatment within the first 2 hours is an important part of successful therapy, and dogs that do well after 24 hours usually survive.  However, long-term therapy with antibiotics is often needed to prevent life-threatening secondary infection.  Snake bites are often slow to heal and produce scarring. 

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