The Vet Says…what to do if your dog is bitten by a snake

The good news about snakes is that we only have one native venomous species in the UK – the Adder (Vipera berus). Even better news is that they’re largely elusive creatures who are about as keen on running into you as you are of running into them.

The bad news is that if anything is likely to sniff them out it’s your inquisitive best friend.

Male Adder
A male Adder with its distinctive markings. This one is about to shed (slough) (their eyes aren’t normally blue.)

Before we go on, it’s important to stress that snakes shouldn’t be feared; (a large amount of respect doesn’t go amiss of course); they have a role in the ecosystem, and the chances are you’ve probably walked past scores of them without knowing.

It’s also worth noting that the native British Adder’s numbers are dwindling, hence there are a number of breeding programmes around the country.

Female Adder
Female Adder

Snake bites in dogs are not as rare as you might think; in fact at our surgery we see, on average, a case a week in the warmer months of the year.

…they’re largely elusive creatures who are about as keen on running into you as you are of running into them.

Now, short of curbing your dog’s natural instinct to explore in hedgerows, forests and fields some knowledge of what to look for and what to do will come in handy.

If your dog is bitten he or she will let you know. If you hear a yelp, check them over. You’re looking for two puncture marks about an inch apart. Of course with long haired dogs this is easier said than done.

Facts to bear in mind

*As mentioned, we see an average of one suspected snake bite a week during Spring and Summer.

*High risk times are sunny days when the adders like to bask.

*Classical signs of a suspect bite is a sudden onset and unexplained swelling.

*It goes without saying the experience is painful.

*Sometimes fang bites are evident but not always. They’re often found on the face where the dog investigates, but we also see a lot of bites on the leg area causing acute swelling and lameness.

*The major short term risk is anaphylactic shock and swelling around the head and neck which causes breathing difficulties. Rapid treatment with iv fluids, steroids and antibiotics is needed. In the longer term, the snake bite toxin can cause local tissue necrosis (death) resulting in very serious infections and sloughing of tissue (bits falling off) leaving very large wounds that need surgical reconstruction.

*The dose of toxin compared to the size of the animal often determines whether the bite is fatal. i.e a baby adder biting a Rottweiler is less risky than an adult adder biting a Jack Russell or a cat. Most of the time we have no idea at the time of treatment the dose of venom given.

*Human antivenom is available but there is some evidence that some animals can have an anaphylactic reaction to the antivenom. Also it is much harder to obtain now. We do not routinely use it as our steroid/antiobiotic/iv fluids/24 hour nursing protocol works very well.

*Bites to the head and neck area are more dangerous than limb bites.

*Finally, there is some evidence that in rare cases head bites can cause behavioural changes in dogs possibly due to venom effects on the brain.

*Cats are less likely to encounter snakes as they’re less inquisitive, but due to the venom to weight ratio, bites to a cat should be considered even more serious.

As always if you suspect your dog has been bitten, treat it as an emergency and contact us immediately. Do not attempt to apply a tourniquet or to try and suck out the venom. Well-intentioned first aid attempts can make matters worse.

If you’re after more information on the Adder, this BBC article makes for interesting reading.