FIRST AID IN THE FIELD - Entry #3 (Snake Bite)

July 5, 2009

Now I'm not a big fan of snakes and I know I'm not alone in this. However, if you are a frequent hiker or camper, it is a very good idea to become familiar with the snakes common to your region. For example, the deadliest pit viper in North America is the Western Diamondback rattlesnake. It resides primarily in the southwestern parts of the U.S. Other snakes to look out for include Coral snakes, Copperheads and Cottonmouths. It is important to be able to recognize these snakes in case one bites you or your dog, as you will need to be able to quickly assess the danger your dog may be in.

As with anything, it is much better to prevent a problem from occurring rather than correcting the problem after it occurs. Dogs often attempt to investigate snakes and end up getting bitten. Some common places snakes can be found are on the ground, in trees, in and under logs, or in rodent burrows. One way to avoid snake bites is to train your dog to stay away from these areas. Consider taking a snake-aversion class if you live in an area known to be inhabited by dangerous snakes.

Unfortunately, no matter how many precautions you may take, you could still find yourself in a snakebite-related situation. It is best to be prepared. Randy Acker, DVM and author of Field Guide to Dog First Aid (Wilderness Adventure Press, 1994), suggests talking to your veterinarian before taking a walk in a poisonous snake-infested area. Your vet can provide a combination of steroids, antihistamines and antibiotics that can save your dog's life if he/she is bitten.

Recognize the Signs
If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a snake, you should treat this as a medical emergency - even if you don't know the type of snake that did the biting. When a snake releases venom into a wound, you may see fang marks, swelling and possibly a blackening at the bite site. Your dog may also exhibit bleeding, lethargy, rapid breathing and an irregular heartbeat within hours of the bite. If the snake bites an artery or a vein, your dog could die within hours.

What NOT To Do
  • Do NOT give your dog aspirin after a snakebite. This anti-inflammatory drug may contribute to bleeding problems.
  • Do NOT make an incision over the snakebite and attempt to suck out the venom. Veterinarians agree that this method does nothing to slow down or prevent venom from entering the body. You will only succeed in wasting valuable time.

Seek medical attention as soon as possible! If you feel you cannot reach a vet within the hour, here are some steps you can take while in the field to buy some time:

  • Decrease the absorption of the venom by keeping your dog as calm as possible and minimizing his/her activity. If possible, carry your dog to your destination.
  • Use a towel to apply cool water to the wound. This will help cause basal constriction and decrease the venom absorption.
  • Give your dog antihistamines. Hopefully you have already consulted with your vet regarding the proper dosage. If using Benadryl, a good rule-of-thumb is one milligram per pound of dog.
  • Apply a thin coat of antibiotic ointment to lessen the infection. This will also need to be obtained by your vet ahead of time.

Even after you have completed the above steps, you will need to get your dog to a vet immediately. Call ahead of time to make sure the facility has antivenin. If they do not, a staff member should be able to refer you to another facility.

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