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Snakebites from Coral Snakes and Cobras

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Bites by poisonous snakes, also referred to as snake envenomization, affect over 150,000 dogs and cats per year in North America. Most of these bites (99%) are by a class of snakes called Crotalidae which includes rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads). For more information about this type of bite, click here.

The other type of venomous snake present in the United States is Elapidae. This is a family of venomous front-fanged snakes, which includes cobras, kraits, mambas, coral snakes and hamadryads. Elapine snakes have short fangs and tend to hang on and "chew" venom into their victims. Their venom is largely neurotoxic and paralyzes the respiratory center. They are more toxic than bites from the Crotalidae group.

Coral snakes and cobras are the primary members of this family of venomous snakes, and coral snakes are the only family normally present in the United States, primarily in the southeastern states, including Texas. They are known for their distinctive color pattern: a red band adjacent to a yellow band. It's sometimes necessary to distinguish the corals from another common non-venomous snake that looks similar, except that the red and yellow bands are separated by a black band. Some remember the difference by the adage, "Red on yellow kill a fellow, red on black, venom lack."

Fatal snakebites are more common in dogs than in any other domestic animal. Due to the relatively small size of some dogs in proportion to the amount of venom injected, the bite of even a small snake may be fatal. Fortunately, reports of Elapidae snakebites in pets are relatively rare. This is probably due to the small size of the snakes head and it's difficulty in opening the mouth wide enough to bite and envemon a dog. The type, effect and amount of venom can vary with the age and type of snake and can even vary within families of snakes.

Most snakebites occur in large breed primarily outdoor dogs with the majority of bites located on the legs or head, especially the muzzle. Most bites occur during the spring and summer seasons. It is estimated that 90% of bites occur between April and mid October. Bites from these snakes are generally the result of aggressive or curious actions while playing in snake-infested areas.

What to Watch For

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Disorientation
  • Paralysis
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Vomiting

    There is typically little swelling in the area of the bite.

    Diagnosis

    In many instances, the bite has been witnessed and diagnosis is not a problem. When the bite is only suspected, diagnosis is based on physical exam finding and potential exposure to coral snakes.

    Treatment

    Animals bitten by an elapine snake should receive intensive treatment as soon as possible because irreversible effects of venom begin immediately after envenomation. Recovery is expected if rapidly treated by a veterinarian.

  • There is an antivenin available for Elapidae envenomation but access may be limited in certain areas. Antivenin is a product created from antibodies produced by an animal purposely exposed to snake venom. It helps to counteract the venom on the pets system. It can also be very expensive ($300 to $400 per vial with each pet needed 1 to 3 vials) and may cause allergic reactions in some pets. For this reasons, pets are hospitalized and closely monitored.

  • Hospitalization with continuous intravenous fluids is generally recommended.

  • Atropine may be used to counteract some of the effects of the venom.

  • If the vemon affects the respiratory system, respiratory support with a ventilator may be necessary.

    Home Care

  • After a venomous snakebite, DO NOT use a tourniquet. This will significantly affect the circulation to the area and may result in serious tissue damage.

  • Do not try to suck the venom out of the bite. Human saliva contains many bacteria and may result in severe infection.

  • The most helpful and important thing to do is to severely limit your pet's activity after the snakebite. The quieter and calmer he is, the more slowly the venom will circulate and the less effect it will have.

    Preventive Care

    The best way to prevent Elapidae snakebites is to restrict access to Elapidae infested areas. If a venomous snake bites your pet, it is unlikely that he will remember and voluntarily avoid snakes in the future. Future venomous snakebites may result in much more severe toxic signs and might even result in death.

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