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Although it’s unfathomable to most, snake bites and envenomization are common in many parts of the world. In the U.S., species of snakes vary by region. Common snakes known to bite include copperhead snakes (primarily found along the eastern seaboard), rattlesnakes (found in southeastern states, including Florida), and the Eastern coral snake (located in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana).
Snakes are typically encountered on walks or hikes in heavily wooded areas or arid desert regions. Dogs are often curious and approach snakes, who are usually not on the offensive, but will readily defend themselves if bothered, stepped on, or picked up. Snake bites occur quickly, with two puncture wounds being inflicted and, depending on the species, a rapid envenomization. Owners usually witness the bite as it occurs and are advised to take a photo of the snake responsible or attempt to remember the color patterns and tail appearance.
Snake Bite Symptoms and Treatment
Regardless of the snake species, immediate veterinary care is recommended. Non-venomous snakes are still capable of inflicting deep puncture wounds that may become infected or cause swelling, bruising, and pain that will require examination and cleaning. If a bite occurs on the face, head, or neck, swelling can cause breathing and swallowing difficulty.
Time is of the essence when seeking treatment for a venomous snake bite. Immediate swelling and bruising often occurs, but the life-threatening disease processes include tissue damage, coagulopathy (bleeding or clotting disorders), and organ dysfunction, including heart and neurological dysfunction. Dogs that receive venomous snake bites will require immediate intervention, including baseline blood work, stabilization, and administration of antivenom.
Snake bite or envenomization patients will require local wound care at the bite location, fluid and blood product administration, pain control, and symptomatic and supportive care. In addition, blood work monitoring is required to prevent and treat any organ dysfunction occurring secondary to envenomization or venom-induced shock. Venom-induced shock includes disease processes secondary to envenomization. The venom itself causes local tissue destruction, bleeding, and bruising, but the body’s response to venom includes cardiovascular instability, organ dysfunction, and bleeding disorders. Venom-induced shock is treated with snake antivenom.
Snake antivenom is a biological medication made up of neutralizing antibodies derived from other animals, such as horses. Depending on the size of the dog and severity of the envenomization, one to six vials of snake antivenom will need to be administered. This medication is administered intravenously. Snake antivenom typically costs $600 – 1000 per vial and is necessary for survival of venom-induced shock. Most emergency veterinarian hospitals in areas where snake bites are common will keep vials of snake antivenom in stock. However, if a vial is not available, a local human hospital can typically be contacted in an emergency situation for purchase of a vial of snake antivenom.
Snake Bite Prevention
If you live in an area where snakes are common, keep your dogs leashed at all times, stay on trails, and train your dog in snake avoidance or aversion. In addition, know the nearest emergency facility that keeps snake antivenom in stock and be prepared for the cost of care, whether that be through personal savings or pet insurance. In addition, a vaccine based on the snake venom of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake is available, which can protect against approximately 15 species of rattlesnakes in the United States. The vaccine decreases the severity of rattlesnake bites by inducing dogs to produce their own antibodies against snake venom.
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