All dogs (young and old) are at high risk for snake bite because they’re curious and try to play with them. Dogs that live in rural areas often encounter snakes in their outdoor exploration. When the dog is too curious, or too hardheaded, to leave a snake alone, the dog may be bitten. Nonpoisonous snake bites are painful and can cause infection, but venomous snake bites can kill a dog within only an hour unless you seek veterinary medical attention for the snake bite.
Where Do Snake Bites Happen?
Fatal snakebites are more common in dogs than in any other domestic animal. Poisonous snakes are found in all states except Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii. Your dog is most at risk for snakebite if you live in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, or Texas.
Symptoms or Signs of a Snake Bite on Dogs
Thick fur helps protect the dog from body injuries, and bites most often occur on the face or neck when the dog tries to catch the snake. A non-poisonous snake bite will leave tiny horseshoe-shaped teeth marks. The severity of a venomous bite depends on the size of the dog in relation to the snake, the number of bites inflicted, and how much venom is injected. Some kinds of venom affect the central nervous system and make the dog appear drunk, have seizures, or stop breathing.
There may be redness or bleeding and first signs of a snakebite usually include agitation, excessive panting and drooling, and weakness. Vomiting, diarrhea, collapsing, seizures, shock, and sometimes paralysis (with coral snake bites), leading to coma and potentially death may follow. The most common sign is a sudden and severe swelling at the bite location that typically hides the bite wounds. You might mistake the swelling to be caused by a spider bite or bug sting.
The venom from pit vipers like copperheads discolors the flesh within minutes because it digests the flesh. Even if the bite isn’t life-threatening, it needs immediate veterinary medical care because it can cause irreversible damage. If you see discolored flesh surrounding the bite mark, head to the vet's office immediately.
Snakes That Cause Complications
Poisonous snakes endemic to the United States include copperheads, cottonmouths (water moccasins), rattlesnakes (or pit vipers), and coral snakes. The four types have the following characteristics:
- Rattlesnakes usually are brown or reddish with clear patterns on the back and rattles on the end of the tail. In general, pit vipers have slit-eyed pupils like a cat (compared to round pupils in non-poisonous snakes), pits beneath their eyes, big arrow-shaped heads, rough scales, and a pair of fangs in the upper jaw
- Water moccasins hang out near streams or in swamps. They reach 4 to 6 feet in length and are dark brown to black. The inside of the mouth is white, giving the snake its "cottonmouth" nickname.
- Copperheads have a red-brown coloring and an hourglass marking, and a distinctive copper-colored head. They reach about 2 to 4 feet in length and hang out around leaf litter and woodpiles.
- The coral snake can be recognized by its small black-nosed head and vividly banded body that is colored red, yellow, white, and black. Red and yellow bands are always next to each other. Coral snakes can be distinguished from king snakes (same bands of color but in a different order) by remembering this rhyme: “Red next to yellow kills a fellow.”
If you can spot the snake that bit your dog, that information will be helpful to the vet and may help dictate the treatment plan.
If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a poisonous snake, get to an emergency veterinary hospital immediately. If you can do so safely, bring the snake for possible identification. Snake bites are diagnosed by identification of the snake, characteristics of the wound, and symptoms/signs noted in the dog. They are treated with antivenin given within four to eight hours after the bite.
- The poison can cause shock, paralysis, or make the nostrils or windpipe swell shut. Remove the dog's collar or harness so that if it's body swells, the airways remain unrestricted. Be prepared to give your dog rescue breathing.
- Keep your dog as quiet as possible on the way to the vet. Any movement can speed up the poison’s spread through the blood circulation.
- Turn up the AC in the car to help slow down circulation. Apply an ice pack directly to the wound, even a package of frozen vegetables will work. Keep the ice on until you reach the vet's office.
- If you can see bite marks, rinse the wounds with water or a baby wipe to get the venom off the dog's body. If you live in a snake-endemic region, invest in a vacuum pump for snake bites (included in snakebite kits) that have been shown to remove 30 percent of the venom when used promptly.
Once you arrive at the vet's office, they will examine your dog and likely treat it with antivenin, which is a commercially made serum that neutralizes the effects of the snake venom. Some antivenin is specific to the type of snake that bit the dog, so the more information you have, the vet will be better able to treat your dog.
How to Prevent Snake Bites
There is no perfect way to prevent snake bites in dogs. The best method is to supervise your dog, especially in areas where snakes are present. Clear away brush and confine your dog to a space that you’ve checked for hazards. It’s always easier to avoid and prevent tragedy than to deal with the aftermath.