Summer is the time for stings and bites.
Most are mild and can be treated at home. Others can be serious, sometimes life-threatening.
Many simple insect stings and bites on dogs can be treated at home as long as someone can watch the pet for the next 24 hours. Most dogs begin to respond to treatment quickly. It’s always a good idea to call your veterinarian for advice, but a quick response at home can lessen your dog’s pain and discomfort and may be curative.
Although bees, wasps and hornets are the main culprits, certain ants and spiders can cause intense allergic reactions.
How Do Stings Happen?
Dogs’ curious noses and mouths just have to explore. “What’s that buzzing around? Let me stick my nose right at it — or, better yet, try to bite and catch it in my mouth.”
Many bee or hornet stings occur around the dog’s face, creating a big swollen muzzle and/or swelling around the eye.
The second most common place for your pup to get stung is on the foot or distal limb. They can step on a ground hornet or paw at something buzzing close to the ground. They end up with a painful, swollen paw and often a limp.
I Didn’t See It Happen
Many times, you don’t observe the actual sting. You just see the effect.
Your dog might be playing in the yard and get stung and not react much at first. Or you may have missed the initial reaction. Usually a dog will bite at the area, use their paws to wipe at their face, rub their face in the grass or along a surface, or roll all over in the clover.
In a few minutes, an obvious swelling of the face or area usually occurs. If you call your vet and explain this or text a picture, it’s usually pretty clear that a sting occurred.
Bites on feet and extremities can be more of a puzzle. A limp or swelling of the foot is more difficult to diagnose and may require a vet visit.
If you didn’t see the sting occur and the signs are fairly vague, the vet may ask you to bring the dog in to make sure the swelling or limp hasn’t been caused by a cut, an abscess or a musculoskeletal injury.
How to Treat a Simple Sting on Your Dog
Most stings are mild and create some redness and swelling. Your dog may itch, rub, or bite at an area or favor a paw.
Facial swelling is common. An area around an eye may swell up so much that you can’t see the eye. Your dog suddenly looks like a prize fighter! Or the muzzle swells up, making your pup look like a Shar-Pei or a funny photograph. It’s definitely not funny.
The dog can get stung anywhere on the body, although this is less common than facial swelling, and there is usually redness or swelling or hives.
- Examine the area and try to locate the stinger. Most dogs make this difficult. If you find a stinger, try to scrape it away with a fingernail or credit card. Don’t squeeze and push the stinger in deeper.
- Place a cold compress on the area. If your dog lets you do this, it can feel really good to them and give them some relief. A bag of frozen peas works nicely.
- A thick paste of baking soda and water applied directly to the area offers some relief. In some cases, this may be easier to do than holding frozen peas on the face of an upset pet! Obviously, keep away from the eyes.
- Keep Benadryl (diphenhydramine) in your medicine cabinet. Give 1 mg per pound of body weight. So, for example, a 25-pound dog gets a 25 mg dose.
- This can be repeated in 6–8 hours as long as the swelling is reducing and your dog seems fine. Most simple stings get much better within 12–24 hours. If you still have concerns, consult your vet.
- Check your Benadryl or generic diphenhydramine label! Many cold remedies contain other medications, such as decongestants or pain relievers, and you don’t want those. Give Benadryl only.
- Please don’t give other antihistamines or medications before consulting with your vet.
- Anti-itch creams and lotions do very little since they will most likely be licked off.
The More Complicated Sting
Swelling can be severe for a number of reasons:
- Your dog may simply be more allergic. Just like people, some dogs are more sensitive to a particular sting or bite.
- Brachycephalic dogs (for example, Pugs, Bostons or Frenchies) may exhibit more severe symptoms simply because of their pushed-in faces and compact throats. Watch their breathing! It is never wrong to bring your sweet smushy-faced pup to the vet right away with any swelling of the face, mouth or throat.
- Multiple stings can occur if a dog comes upon a nest or a swarm. The dog may be extremely agitated, rolling around, pawing furiously at their face or body. Give the Benadryl and call or go to the vet.
- Hives or wheals may occur on a large area. These may take longer to resolve. Consult with your vet.
Serious Reactions Require an Emergency Vet Visit
First off, if you are nervous or if your pet is frantic, go to the veterinarian.
It’s never wrong to bring in a dog who has been stung. You will feel relief, and you will get proper instructions and medications from your vet.
If you know your pet has been stung in or around the mouth, watch them very carefully. Any changes in breathing mean you must get to the vet. If your dog begins to wheeze or exhibits noisy or any kind of labored breathing, get to the vet.
Severe reactions to stings can result in a kind of shock called anaphylaxis. This is a true emergency.
Go to the vet if you see:
- Trouble breathing
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Weakness, collapse or extreme lethargy
- Neurologic signs that are not short-lived, such as continual tremors, collapse or possibly seizures
- Acute swelling that is getting worse, not better
Rarely, delayed-type hypersensitivity occurs 3–14 days later, when a pet becomes very sick and requires immediate veterinary attention. Again, this is very rare, but if there has been a bad stinging incident, watch your dog’s behavior over the next 2 weeks and report any signs of illness to your vet.
What About Cats?
Cats seem to have a lot more sense about bees and wasps, but they can still get stung. Much of the above applies to cats as well, but consult with your vet before giving your cat any medication.
Cats may begin to excessively drool if they have been stung in or around the mouth. Bring them to the vet if there is excessive drooling, any trouble breathing, vomiting and diarrhea, or extreme lethargy.
Hopefully, you and your pets will have a sting-free rest of the summer. Enjoy the great outdoors, and try to avoid those stinging things!
- Adams, Stephen B., DVM, DACVS. “Overview of Musculoskeletal Disorders and Diseases in Dogs.” Merck Veterinary Manual. March 2018. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/bone-joint-and-muscle-disorders-of-dogs/overview-of-musculoskeletal-disorders-and-diseases-in-dogs.
- Hunter, Tammy, DVM, and Ernest Ward, DVM. “Hives (Urticaria) in Dogs.” VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/urticaria-or-hives-in-dogs.