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Fred Lanting, All-Breed Judge, Sieger/Schutzhund, SAAB


Emergency! Your dog has been bitten by a snake! The old-time recommendation of cutting the wound and sucking out the poison is no longer routinely given...


FRED LANTINGMany authorities now say the delay and incision present more risk of infection and additional trauma than potential benefit.  While the venom itself is inactivated by stomach acids (in case you swallow some, snake saliva is chock full of clostridia bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms), quick treatment is the key to successfully fending off both these bacteria and the effect of the venom’s ingredients.


If the bite is on a limb, a tourniquet left in place for up to an hour can help slow absorption into and flow through the lymphatic system, but in most snake-bites-dog cases, the head of the dog is involved, so a tourniquet is impractical. Furthermore, suction is extremely difficult if at all possible.


Felicia, my German Shepherd, had two fang punctures, midway between her eyes and nose, with one atop the nasal bone and the other over her upper carnassial teeth, on the cheek. My male Justice was bit on the flew (lower side lip).


Good first-aid may include application of an ice pack (if you already have one in the freezer or can prepare one in a minute), plus keeping the patient quiet. The ice pack should be wrapped in a light towel to prevent frostbite.


We told the dogs to get into the back seat of the car and lie down, though the best that two adult German Shepherds can do in today’s vehicles is take turns sitting and lying down. Our veterinarian was prepared by my phone call and kept the clinic open for us.  Intravenous injections of anti-venom and steroids were the first medication administered.


Venom of the pit vipers contains some neurotoxins but not as bad or as much as in other types of poisonous snakes. Only if the snake has made a direct injection into a vein would there be an immediate risk of fatality. Of course, many factors weigh on these generalities: the size and health of the dog (and of the snake), how long ago the snake had spent some venom on a mouse meal, how much fat the dog has under his skin, etc.


Bacteria exacerbate the wound and the system, hence the use of antibiotics orally or by injection to combat infection. Death comes to the dog that has been bitten by a poisonous snake, only if he has not been given prompt treatment or if the combination of small, weak dog and large, powerful snake existed. Most medium-to-large dogs pull through with little long-term effect but, if unknown or otherwise ignored, a snakebite’s enzymes and neurotoxins can damage vital organs such as kidneys and liver, while bacterial sepsis adds its own poisons to the various systems and organs as well as to the local lesion.


The biggest problem is swelling, and this is fought with antihistamines and corticosteroids. Since the antivenin is usually of non-canine origin (horse, etc.), a steroid helps ward off allergic reactions/rejection to the serum. Steroids are a great help in reducing swelling and I gave each of the dogs a shot of Prednisone and Betasone when I brought them home after two days’ hospitalization. They also had three days of antihistamines, chloramphenicol antibiotic, and Lasix, a diuretic.


If you witness the incident, try to determine if the snake is poisonous but even if you think it isn’t venomous, keep the dog under observation at home and if swelling begins, assume it was venomous. If you kill it, handle the head carefully (it can still bite after being severed and dead) and take the whole thing to the veterinarian with you and the dog.


If you don’t have a piece of rubber tubing, use a strip of cloth for a tourniquet on a limb, applying it a few inches above the wound, tightly enough to barely allow a finger squeezed under it. Place ice cubes in a plastic bag, wrap it with a dish towel, and hold it to the wound while an assistant telephones and drives you to a veterinarian.


If you are alone, don’t waste time with the ice—drive with both hands on the wheel and both headlamps and flashers on.


Your veterinarian might not have a lot of experience with snakebites, but that he has excellent reference books that he will have consulted right after your call. However much his procedure varies from someone else’s, do what he says, for there is minor disagreement among members of the profession as to whether antihistamines are beneficial or synergistic with venom, whether steroids should be used, whether an incision should be made, whether alcohol should be avoided in cleansing the wound, and whether painkillers should be given. Feel free to ask questions but be tactful about it and trust your veterinarian. EST 1998 © 1910



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