Snakes of the Pit Viper family are the most common snakes in the United States and include all species of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouth water moccasins. Bites from these reptiles are very serious and can be life-threatening to your pet. Immediate medical attention is warranted if you witness or suspect that your dog has been bitten by a snake.
During a bite, the snake releases a controlled amount of venom into their target. The species, size, age, time since the last envenomation, and the perceived threat level all influence the amount of venom injected. Variation in the type of venom also occurs between the species, but in general contains enzymes and other proteins that target the nervous system and the blood cells and cause tissue death. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell how much venom has been injected with a bite, so all dogs should be brought to a veterinarian immediately and treated aggressively .
The most common locations that receive snake bites are the head and neck, followed by the front legs. The clinical signs associated with the bite may include puncture wounds, bleeding, swelling, pain, and generalized weakness. Do not try to remove the venom from your pet's wounds by suction, and do not place a tourniquet, ice, or warm packs on the bite wound. These treatments may seem tempting, but they may make the effects of the envenomation worse. Also, do not give your dog any medications. It is better to keep your pet calm and quiet and immediately bring him to the nearest veterinary hospital.
The goal of treatment for your pet will be to minimize and reverse the effects of the venom as well as pain management. Specific treatments may include intravenous fluids, antibiotics, pain medication, and antivenin. Most dogs require hospitalization for several days, with approximately 80 percent surviving if they receive appropriate treatment.
A Rattlesnake vaccine is available; however there are some concerns as to its efficacy. Your dog may need to be vaccinated as many as three times a year to maintain protection and the vaccine may not provide immunity against all snakes in your area. Please consult with your veterinarian to see if the vaccine is appropriate for your dog. An important fact to understand is that even if your dog has been vaccinated, he will still need to be treated following envenomation. The vaccine will decrease the severity of the clinical signs, but will not eliminate them completely.
Snake envenomations are a serious and potentially life-threatening problem that cannot be prevented. However, with prompt and aggressive treatment by a veterinarian, most dogs can survive and continue to enjoy the outdoors.