Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Snake Bites Dog

What to do if your dog is bitten by a snake.

Toby, Paul's Labrador retriever/border collie mix. Toby, Paul's Labrador retriever/border collie mix.It was bound to happen. Toby, our Labrador retriever/border collie mix, ran ahead on the trail. He came back excited, carrying something special in his mouth. That something special was an adult rattlesnake, as big as a walking pole with its full body and five rattles. The pit viper spun on Toby and bit him under the chin on the neck. Toby dropped the snake and ran. The snake coiled and rattled a warning.

Toby handled it pretty well. The bite site swelled up to the size of a half of a tennis ball, but it wasn’t near his nose or eyes, which might have been catastrophic. He behaved fairly normally, except for a bit of fatigue and not wanting to leave his master’s side. The veterinarian said it was fortunately probably a fairly “dry” (no envenomation) bite. This was confirmed by the lack of soft tissue breakdown and a rapid recovery. That’s one lucky dog.

When snakes bite people, we head for the doctor in case antivenom is needed for treatment. But what about our furry friends? Fundamentally, the treatment is the same. If a dog is bitten by a known or possibly venomous species in North America, the owner should try to minimize the dog’s activity and bring the dog to medical attention, because a snakebite in a dog can be a very serious matter. If it is near the nose and mouth, swelling can compromise breathing. In the case of a rattlesnake, the venom’s systemic effects can cause low blood pressure, bleeding, and shock.  If the animal survives the bite, but enough venom has been released by the snake into the wound, the tissues may die, leaving a large sore that requires meticulous wound care.

There is no effective first aid in the field. Snake bite kits that feature incision and suction, electric shock devices, and compression bandages have not been proven effective. Anything that delays transport to the veterinarian may be detrimental. If you are traveling in snake country, the best therapy is prevention. Unleashed dogs will wander and their curiosity will lead them directly to the snakes. If you hear a snake, keep your dog close until the danger is passed. Remember that snakes move around more at night. The same way that you would not reach under a rock or log, do not allow your dog to do this. If your dog is sniffing in tall grass or bushes that might be harboring a snake, move the dog away. Do not use an animal to flush out a snake, or to provide combat protection. The snake will win.

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Tags: Bites & Stings

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.