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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Rattlesnake Bites in Pets

By Jan Mladonicky, DVM
Emergency Veterinary Intern

WesternRattlesnake_D790With the ability to travel one half its body length at a speed of 8 feet per second, it doesn’t take long for a snake to strike and inject venom into your dog. The venomous snakes in Colorado include the western rattlesnake and the massasauga, commonly known as the pit vipers. The western rattlesnake lives throughout the state while the massasauga lives in the southeastern grasslands.

Snakes depend on their venom to immobilize and partially digest prey so it is no surprise this means bad news for your pet. Effects of venom in the body may be immediate or may be delayed. You may observe fang marks, blood, rapid swelling, and/or discoloration at the bite site. Snakebites are remarkably painful. The venom may also cause breathing difficulty, increased salivation, affect the heart, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or convulsions among others. Fever and bleeding disorders are also possible. If the bite happens to hit an artery, blood pressure can drop and shock can occur in minutes.

Multiple variables contribute to the severity of the snakebite—the size of the victim, number and location of bites on the body, sensitivity of the pet to venom, and how much venom (if any) the snake releases. In pets, mortality is highest when the bite occurs on the chest or abdomen than bites to the limbs or head. The amount of venom the snake releases depends on their last meal – if a snake has not recently eaten, there will be a greater amount of venom available for release. In people, it is estimated about 25% of snake bites can be described as dry bites, without release of venom. The percentage of dry bites is not known in dogs or cats, so to be safe, it is advised to have your pet evaluated right away, even if no clinical signs are observed. While initial clinical signs can be mild at the beginning, they can progress rapidly.

Terrifying, right? Stay calm. Keep your pet calm. The good news is with early medical intervention, most dogs and cats survive. Try to limit activity as much as possible and get to your car. The best thing you can do for your pet is to get them to a veterinary clinic right away. You may have heard about applying tourniquets, cutting the skin and sucking out venom. These techniques are ineffective. Venom distributes into the body rapidly and penetration is often deep; you are only causing increased injury to surrounding tissue. In dogs, the majority of bites occur on the head so tourniquet application is not possible.

Do not try to kill the snake, as this will delay treatment to your painful pet. Even if killed, the snake’s sensory organ near the mouth can trigger a bite response releasing venom if a warm hand is placed near the head. Your veterinarian does not need the snake for identification purposes – the antivenom available is useful against all of the pit vipers in the United States.

At the veterinary hospital, treatment is aimed at controlling pain and providing intravenous fluids. Antivenom may be administered to help neutralize the venom. While some studies have demonstrated it reduces the progression of swelling and helps reverse adverse effects caused by venom, the cost and availability sometimes limit its use. Not all veterinary clinics have antivenom and not all animals require antivenom to survive. This medication is most effective if administered within 4 hours of the bite. While the average number of vials of antivenom used in human patients is around 12, the number of vials used in veterinary patients ranges from 1-10. Sometimes, blood products may need to be administered to control blood disorders. The bite wound will also be cleaned and antibiotics may be administered to prevent infection. Depending on the severity of bite and your pet’s reaction to the venom, hospitalization may be recommended for 24-48 hours.

Antivenom is used in patients that have experienced a bite from a rattlesnake to help counteract the dangerous affects of snake venom. There is a rattlesnake vaccine available that can be administered at your veterinarian’s office before a bite occurs. This vaccine is not a substitute for seeking veterinary care if your pet is bitten. There have been reports that vaccinated animals have less swelling, less tissue damage, and may recovery faster than unvaccinated animals. However, this vaccine was created for protection against the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake – a snake not present in Colorado. Although it may provide some protection against the venom in Colorado snakes, there is no published data to support its effectiveness. Together with your veterinarian, you both can determine if this vaccine is right for your pet.

Snakebites are a medical emergency and can be fatal, but with some quick action and appropriate veterinary care your pet has a chance for survival. If you have any suspicion a bite has occurred, don’t delay, stay calm, and get your pet to a veterinary hospital right away. The best prevention is keeping your pet on a leash, especially in the spring and summer months, and avoiding hiking in low visibility areas where snakes can hide.

Dr Jan Mladonicky is an Emergency Veterinary Intern at Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists. AMVS is a 24-hour veterinary facility providing specialty internal medicine, orthopedic surgery, oncology, emergency, critical care, and pain management. They are located in Longmont at 104 S. Main St.For more information, go to www.AspenMeadowVet.com.


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