We have reached the end of our 5 most common canine first aid myths mini series. And I saved the most feared topic for last. Because why not go out with a bang?
Snake bites- and I am breaking this up into three parts because there is so much information here.
Part one: Today we will dispel the myths, talk about various types of bites, and give you tangible action steps to prevent snake bites from occurring in the first place. Part two will be posted next week. It will be about the symptoms to look for (because it isn’t always obvious!) Part three will be what you can do for treatment before reaching veterinary care and during your evacuation.
And I will get right down to it, because there is loads of really important information to discuss here.
Here are the myths:
If your dog gets bit by a snake do not do the following:
1) apply any suction device
2) suck the venom out with your mouth
3) apply a tourniquet
4) apply ice packs or alcohol
5) give your dog aspirin
6) cut open the puncture wounds.
Look, I am going to be frank with you. I do not have some magical wand or easy solution for avoiding snake bites with your dogs. BUT stick with me… because understanding how snakes work, their venom, and where they live can help you prevent bites. Did you happen to read my previous blog post about focusing on what we CAN do instead of what we CAN’T? If not, you can read that by clicking here.
Here's what you might be wondering:
How did these treatments become a thing?
20-25 percent of all snake bites are dry, and an additional 30 percent of the bites will result in mild envenomation. It is speculated that the reason people started recommending these sketchy snake bite treatments is because they assumed that in their experience the technique worked... But more likely than not it was actually a dry bite or a mild envenomation that (lucky for them)- didn’t require immediate medical attention.
How can these treatments cause further damage to my dog?
The methods listed above should not be performed because they cause further tissue damage. The things we worry about with bites are: tissue death, excessive inflammation or swelling, bleeding (why you shouldn't administer aspirin!!), and sometimes neurological issues depending on the snake. The above techniques are not only ineffective, they are also going to exacerbate the situation by causing more inflammation, swelling, and more tissue damage. Hence, the reason tourniquets, alcohol, suction devices, and opening up the puncture wound simply DO NOT WORK. Time should be invested in evacuation, not outdated first aid treatments.
Side note: The same presumptions ring true for the vaccine. It is assumed that the vaccine might “buy you time” to get to the vet or reduce the symptoms. However, this is really difficult to test the efficacy because roughly fifty percent of bites are dry or result in a milder envenomation, as previously stated. If you are considering the vaccine it is best to have that conversation with your veterinarian. Then you can decide what is best for your individual dog.
Types of bites and variables:
So, I hate to oversimplify it because there are so many factors that go into this, but basically you can look at it like this: If your dog gets bit you have a 50-50 chance. There is a 50 percent chance that it’s a dry bite (20-25 percent) OR that the bite was a mild envenomation (30 percent). On the flip side, there is a 50 percent chance its severe and even life threatening.
Of the 50 percent that is severe: 40 percent are severe but treatable with proper veterinary care and anti-venom, 5-10 percent are lethal on the spot- probably within minutes to an hour.
Now it can’t be that simple because there are different factors that go into this. Such as: the size and species of the snake (older and bigger snakes=larger amounts of venom, but younger snakes= potentially more toxic venom), his venom load (which might be variable depending on when he had his last meal and how much venom he used), geographic origin (it has been found that the same species of snakes might produce different types of venom- which varies based on their geographic origin -interesting right??), the situation (i.e. defense bite vs predatory bite and contact time with the fangs), the size of the dog, and where the dog gets bit etc.
Bites to the eye, major vessels, and muzzle could potentially be more serious.
Snakes have both have defensive bites and predatory bites. So, when they are in predatory mode and releasing venom into a mouse- that is going to differ from the venom they release when the snake feels threatened by a dog or human. One report I read said defensive bites are more likely to be dry. Another report stated that defensive bites are more variable and the snake releases larger quantities of venom on these bites. The takeaway here is that each bite is probably going to be different depending on the situation, the snake, and the victim.
If you are a herpetologist lets chat because I would love to know your thoughts on this!
OK, so now what can you do to prevent snake bites?
- Should I vaccinate my dog? - As previously stated, the vaccine is an option. It is formulated for the Western Diamondback Rattle snake. Therefore, efficacy for different species of snakes is questionable. The vaccine could have some cross reactivity for other species of rattles snakes and copperheads. The vaccine does not protect against Cottonmouths, Coral snakes, and the Mohave rattlesnake.
- Snake bite aversion training- I admittedly am not an expert on this subject, however I feel I do need to mention it here as it is a viable option. And could be incredibly valuable assuming you have done your research and found a reputable trainer. Again, ask your veterinarian if they can recommend a trainer. Many snake aversion trainers use shock collars. Shock collars can be effective if used properly- however using them in a humane, consistent, and effective approach is sometimes challenging- this is where having a very experienced aversion trainer is paramount. Each individual dog needs to be trained differently based on his or her personality, breed, and age. Ensure that the trainer takes all this into consideration before going forward with the training.
- Time of year and geography- Research has shown that 90 percent of all bites happen between the months of April and October. Know what snakes are in your area and what the look like. Before traveling research your destination. Know what types of snakes are prevalent in the area and what they look like.
- Before going on a trip and while at home – A little preparation goes a long way. Know where the closest veterinary hospital is and call ahead to ensure they have anti-venom on hand. Sometimes veterinary hospitals have to purchase anti-venom from human hospitals depending on the time of the year and availability. Bear in mind that every hospital will have a different approach to inventory management. If the hospital has been seeing a lot of snake bites, they might be running low or out of anti-venom. They might not even carry it. The last thing you want to do is drive an hour in the wrong direction only to find out the veterinary clinic does not have anti-venom on hand or they have recently run out.
- Train your dog to have 100 percent recall- And if your dog has any less than 100 percent- keep him on a leash at all times in areas where snakes are abundant, at dusk and dawn, and during the months where snakes are most active- reminder- that is April to October.
Keeping your dog on a leash will dramatically reduce the chances of him getting bitten. Especially if he has a high prey drive, or if he’s a terrier whose goal in life is to kill all the things that like to hide in wood piles, holes, dens, and burrows.
And going along with this- if at all possible, stay on the trail.
It is especially important to keep your dog on a leash at night- and use a head lamp or flashlight when moving around the campsite at night. Keep your tent zipped shut and check it before you and your dog crawl in for the evening.
Unlike bears, big cats and other dangerous wildlife, snakes do not chase. They only attack when they are threatened. So, if you keep your dog on a leash or if he comes 100 percent of the time you call him, you are dramatically going to reduce his chances of getting bit.
So, in conclusion we’ve reviewed the first aid myths surrounding snake bites, the different variables with each individual snake bite, and what you can do to prevent a snake bite from occurring in the first place.
Because this is such a lengthy subject and such a major concern for you all we will address symptoms next week, and what to do should your dog get bitten the following week.
Our challenge for you this week is to ask yourself how you can implement the strategies outlined above to prevent a snake bite from happening in the first place. Ask yourself honestly: does my dog have perfect recall? If not either work on it until it is 100 percent or consider having your dog on a leash. Also know what snakes are in your area and what they look like. Have a conversation with your vet about the vaccine and aversion training.
And per usual feel free to reach out to me with any questions or concerns.
Until next time,
Libbie Fort, DVM