Most snakes are happy to go about their business, keeping the local population of pesky rodents and insects under control, but some dogs and cats just can’t leave well enough alone. If a venomous snake gets their fangs into your pet, it can be a life-threatening medical emergency. About 150,000 dogs and cats are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year.1 Venomous snakes in the U.S. include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, water moccasins and coral snakes.
With dogs, most snakebites occur on the face or legs. The severity of the bite depends on a number of factors: the type of snake, the location of the bite, the size of the pet, the amount of venom injected and the amount of time between when the bite occurs and when medical treatment is started.
If your pet is bitten by a snake, assume the snake was venomous and seek veterinary help immediately, even if your dog has received the snakebite vaccine.
What NOT to do
- Don’t try to kill or capture the snake — This could put you at risk of a bite.
- Don’t slice over the fang marks and try to suck out venom — What may be a good idea in movies is not a good idea in real life.
- Do not apply a tourniquet, pressure bandage or ice pack — While these tactics can help slow the venom from moving to other parts of the body, if the venom is sequestered, it can cause tissue damage.
- Don’t administer any medications — Only give medications under the guidance of a veterinarian.
Signs of snakebites
If the snake is non-venomous, signs may include pain, bruising and swelling around the bite. Fang marks may be visible. The wound area may become infected; otherwise, swelling generally resolves in a few days.
The signs of a venomous snakebite can vary, but may include pronounced swelling, which may spread quickly. Due to this swelling, fang marks may not be obvious. The pet may have muscle tremors or trouble breathing, and may go into shock.
Treatment can vary
Hospitalization is often required for snakebites. For venomous bites, antivenin specific to each type of snake may be administered intravenously (that’s why it’s helpful to have a photo of the offending snake). This treatment can be very expensive, especially for large dogs, and some pets may have side effects. Pain medications, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and other treatments may also be recommended.
It’s better to try and avoid a trip to the emergency room. Take these steps to help prevent your pet from a nasty bite:
- Know the snakes that are common in your region or the area you will be visiting with your pet.
- On hikes, stay on open paths and keep your pet on a leash.
- Avoid off-trail hiking and areas where snakes are commonly found, such as rock formations and high grass.
- Hike during the day (rattlers are nocturnal) or during cooler months when snakes may not be as active.
- Don’t let your pet sniff at dying or injured snakes — they can still inject venom.
- If you live in or are visiting an area where Western diamondback snakes are common, talk to your vet about the vaccine that is specific for that type of snake. Bear in mind that it is available for dogs only, and the jury is still out on its efficacy.
- If venomous snakes are common in your area, ask your veterinarian about snake avoidance training classes that teach your dog how to avoid the smell, sound and sight of snakes.
- If you do encounter a snake on your hike, stop and give it a chance to slither away on its own; most snakes aren’t aggressive and would rather not deal with people or pets.
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- Morris Animal Foundation. Close encounters of the venomous kind — snakebites in companion animals. Available at https://www.morrisanimalfoundation.org/article/close-encounters-snake-bites-companion-animals. Accessed July 29, 2021.
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.