Despite our deepest fears, snakes are actually quite shy creatures. They prefer to be left alone and are rarely aggressive. Snakes bite only when threatened or injured. Dogs’ persistent curiosity makes them susceptible to snake bites. Hunting and working dogs are most likely to be bitten, as snakes big enough to bite are rarely found in the backyard, much less the living room.
Snake bites should be classified as venomous or non-venomous when possible. Taking care to not be bitten yourself, observe the markings and coloring of the snake and the shape of the head and eyes. Venomous snakes have diamond shaped heads and brows that cover a portion of the upper eyeball. Their pupils are vertical slits like cats’ eyes. Non-venomous snakes have rounded heads, round eyeballs, and round pupils.
Bites from non-venomous snakes should be treated the same as puncture wounds. Bacteria from the dog’s skin and the snakes’ mouth are delivered beneath the skin by sharp, needle-like teeth. Because the teeth are so sharp, the skin may seal quickly over the puncture. The bacteria may then reproduce and cause an abscess. It may rupture and drain several days later. A large amount of tissue may slough off that was damaged by the infection. Oral antibiotics are usually prescribed prophylactically for non-venomous snake bites.
Venomous snake bites are a different story. It is important to get treatment for the dog as soon as possible. Try to keep the dog calm, and keep the bite wound below the level of the heart. Do not attempt to remove the venom yourself by any means. Venom from different snakes act differently on the body, so identification of the snake makes it easier to determine the appropriate treatment protocol. Initial treatment is symptomatic. Shock is controlled with rapid IV fluid therapy. Antivenin is a serum that neutralizes venom, but it comes with its own set of risks, so it must be known whether the antivenin will benefit the dog. This will depend upon which type of snake caused the bite. Antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and pain medications are all indicated. Some venoms cause intravascular coagulation, some cause localized tissue destruction, and some cause neurological effects. The dose of venom determines the severity of illness; therefore, small dogs are more at risk than larger ones because they will receive a higher dose of venom per pound of body weight. In any case, a venomous snake bite is a life-threatening emergency, and veterinary care should be sought immediately.
There is a vaccine available for venomous snake bites. It may be useful for hunting and working dogs. It causes the body to produce antibodies to the venom making the dog somewhat immune. The vaccine appears to be safe, but its efficacy and duration is limited. Even a vaccinated dog should seek medical attention immediately after a bite from a venomous snake.