One of the first rules of first aid of any type is: Be prepared. Understand the potential for emergency — and be ready to react.
Do you know the variety of venomous snakes in the area where you live or visit? Four species of venomous snakes are indigenous to the United States:
- Cotton mouths/water moccasins
- Coral snakes
Most snake bites occur in the Southwestern and Southeastern United States, and not all snakebites contain venom.
Animal medical clinics report more than 150,000 emergency treatments to dogs and cats for snakebites annually. Dogs suffer a much greater incidence of snakebites than other domestic animals.
The most common venomous snakes in the United States are crotalidae — copperheads, cotton mouth/water moccasins and rattlesnakes — also referred to as pit vipers. These snakes prefer to live in tall grass, along ponds, streams and marshes, and in rock and wood piles. They are somewhat nocturnal and they love cool, dark dens.
Crotalidae have broad triangular heads with elliptical pupils. Their curved fangs are prominent, and they are marked by a deep “pit” between the eyes and the nostrils — hence the name pit viper.
Experts estimate the bite of the pit viper accounts for around 99% of snakebites to dogs. Very painful but rarely fatal, the toxicity of the bite of a pit viper depends on the type, age and size of the snake; the amount of venom injected; and the age, size and relative health of the animal bitten.
An estimated 90% of snake bites occur between the months of April and October. Bites are more frequent on the dog’s legs or head — particularly the muzzle.
Is There a Snake Bite Vaccine for Dogs?
Yes, one way to help prevent problems is a snake bite vaccine for dogs. This vaccine, now available from many vets, works to neutralize the venom in case your dog ever gets bitten.
Basically, your vet gives the vaccine to your dog the first year in 2 doses, 1 month apart. Every year after that, the dog simply gets a booster.
“It is essential to note, however, that the vaccine does not eliminate the need to seek emergency veterinary care after the pet is bitten,” according to The Drake Center for Veterinary Care in Encinitas, California, which says it treats at least 1 snake bite every week during peak rattlesnake season.
“Even a vaccinated dog may still go into shock and need lifesaving medical care, including an injection of antivenin to neutralize the toxicity of the venom,” says the vet clinic. “The vaccine also does not provide protection against venom from the water moccasin (cottonmouth), Mojave rattlesnake or coral snake.”
Rattlesnake Warning Signs
Know what to look for if you suspect your pet is bitten by a crotalidae snake:
- Sudden yelp of pain, especially if your dog is playing in a potentially infested area
- Rapid swelling on the legs or face
- Apparent, intense pain
- Fang/puncture marks
- Oozing blood at puncture
- Rapid breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Pale gums
Treating a Rattlesnake Bite on a Dog
Stay calm. If possible, identify the kind of snake responsible for the bite. Restrict your dog’s activity — this will reduce the effect of the venom.
Seek immediate veterinary treatment. Your vet can determine the amount of toxicity injected by the reaction of your dog and/or blood tests.
If a vet is not immediately available:
- Administer diphenhydramine, an antihistamine such as Benadryl, to reduce the allergic reaction from the snake bite.
- If the bite was to the throat, temporary airway support may be necessary.
- Medication for infection will be necessary.
- If you’re wondering about pain medication, speak to your veterinarian first. There’s a chance you could give pain meds that are incompatible with other life-saving medications, and therefore could endanger the dog’s recovery.
Seek professional medical treatment as soon as possible. Recovery will depend on response time and treatment. Most dogs survive crotalidae bites with few if any complications.
- Do not use a tourniquet. Restricting the blood flow may cause serious tissue damage.
- Do not cut an “X” and attempt to suck the venom out. Human saliva contains bacteria that can create a greater infection.
Remember, your dog is suffering and may be in shock. Even the most docile dog can bite out of fear and pain. Protect yourself and your pet from additional harm.
Elapidae — Coral Snakes
Elapidae represents the other species of venomous snakes in North America. Coral snakes, cobras, kraits, mambas and hamadryads are all members of the elapidae family.
Of the elapidae, only coral snakes are indigenous to the United States. They are predominant to the Southeast, particularly Texas and Florida.
Coral snakes have very distinct red, yellow and black color patterns. Like all elapine snakes, they have short fangs and “chew” venom into their victims. The venom is neurotoxic and paralyzes the respiratory system. Bites from elapine snakes are very dangerous and often fatal.
As with crotalidae snakes, diagnosis is often difficult to determine unless the attack is witnessed. Knowledge of the area and the potential for coral snake infestation is crucial.
Coral Snake Warning Signs
- Difficulty breathing
Elapidae snake bites do not typically produce a great deal of swelling, and it can take 10 to 18 hours for more serious symptoms to appear.
Treating a Coral Snake Bite on a Dog
- Seek medical assistance immediately.
- Restrict your animal’s movement, and keep him calm and quiet.
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not attempt to suck the venom out.
- Hospitalization may be required.
Recovery is dependent on the availability of immediate medical intervention and treatment.
Fortunately, snake bites from elapidae are relatively rare, affecting less than 1% of the reported cases of bites to dogs. Coral snakes in particular have small heads and are slower to open their jaws wide enough to envenom a dog. Their distinct color is similar to that of the common, nonvenomous king snake. If you are close enough and brave enough to make the determination, remember:
“Red on yellow, kill a fellow — red on black, venom lack.”
- Educate yourself about the presence of venomous and nonvenomous snakes in the vicinity.
- Avoid areas where snake infestation is likely.
- Leash your dogs when hiking.
- Enroll your dog in snake avoidance classes.
- Know what emergency measures to take in the event of a snakebite.
With a little planning, precaution and practice, you and your dog can enjoy a wonderful season outdoors.
This pet health content was reviewed for accuracy by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed and updated Feb. 4, 2019.