When Your Dog is Stung by a Bee: Acute Allergic Reactions

The A-Bee-C’s of Bites and Stings
By Shea Cox DVM, September 2011, Updated August 2020
dog bee sting

The summer season offers many opportunities for pets and their owners to get outside and enjoy nature. These adventures can provide wonderful opportunities for enrichment, but blooming flowers, gardening and spending more time outdoors can increase a pet’s exposure to stinging insects including bees.

I kicked off my Saturday morning shift by treating the cutest puffy-faced puppy; he was experiencing his first acute allergic reaction. Like many dog owners, this puppy’s mom had never witnessed this kind of sudden reaction, and arrived at our ER in a panicked and perplexed state exclaiming, “he was normal just a minute ago!”

My Dog Got Stung By a Bee!

Dr. Christine Rutter, a clinical assistant professor and emergency and critical care specialist at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says pet owners may not always know when their animal has been stung by an insect, as bees are the only insect that actually leave stingers behind.

The typical culprits that bite and sting dogs are generally bees, wasps and spiders. When a bee stings a dog, the result is an acute allergic reaction which is a common veterinary emergency. This typically happens when our curious canines can’t resist a good sniff and inspection of the interesting creature moseying along the ground or floor. Dogs are usually stung on their face or a paw, but it's important to note that stings may occur anywhere.

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Symptoms

Dogs stung by bees or bitten by insects can experience clinical signs that range from mild to life-threatening reactions.

Mild reactions include: Swollen or puffy face, pain in the swollen area, swelling and redness around the eyes, lumps and bumps over the skin, redness of the skin, head shaking and itchiness.

Dogs with severe reactions to insect bites and bee stings are having what is called an anaphylactic reaction. Anaphylaxis is nearly immediate and can lead to life-threatening alterations in the dog’s body. “Dogs that have facial swelling, severe itching, hives, vomiting, diarrhea and/or collapse after a sting could be allergic to bee stings,” Rutter adds.

Severe reactions include: Vomiting, diarrhea, staggering, pale gums, swelling of the larynx leading to difficulty breathing, and sudden collapse.

Most dogs that I see for anaphylaxis are reported to have vomited once followed by collapsing, and when I perform my physical exam, I generally observe pale gums and a poor pulse indicating a state of shock.

puffy-faced puppy suffered an acute, but not life-threatening, allergic reaction from bee sting.

What to do if Your Dog is Stung by a Bee or Insect

Veterinary attention is required if your pet is showing any signs of an allergic reaction. While seeking medical care, remember the A-Bee-C’s of Bites and Stings by following these steps:

A” is for assist:

When a honeybee stings a dog, its stinger becomes detached from its body and the bee then dies. What’s left in the dog’s body is the stinger and a tiny piece of fleshy looking tissue, which is the venom sac. (Here’s a short video demonstration.) Wasps or bumblebees, on the other hand, can sting repeatedly because their stingers do not become detached from their bodies.

If your pet was stung, see if the insect and stinger are still attached. If so, try to remove the stinger by scraping it out with a credit card or other stiff material. Alternatively, use tweezers by grasping the stinger, which is located below the venom sac. Be careful not to put pressure on the venom sac during its removal, as this will inject more of the venom into your pet.

If you don't feel confident in removing the stinger, wait until your veterinarian can do so.

“B” is for baking soda:

To help neutralize some of the acidic venom, apply a paste mixture of baking soda and water to the sting area.

“C” is for cool compress:

Apply a cool compress to the area to help reduce the swelling and pain, as well as to help with constricting the blood vessels to “slow” the spread of the insect venom.

Important: Have your pet examined immediately by your veterinarian if there are any signs of facial swelling, vomiting, breathing difficulty or collapse. Mild clinical signs can progress to severe clinical signs in a short period of time and early treatment will generally prevent continued progression of the reaction.

If your dog is stung by an insect DO NOT administer any medications to your dog without first contacting your veterinarian or a veterinary emergency hospital. A veterinarian will need to examine your pet before recommending medications.

    Can Anaphylaxis be Prevented?

    In general, there is no way to predict which dogs will have an allergic reaction to a bee sting, whether it will be mild, or whether it will progress to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Some pets have no reaction to a sting one time, and then have a severe reaction the next. If your pet has more than one severe reaction to an insect sting, address the issue with your veterinarian to see what options are best to protect your furry friend.

    Benadryl for Dogs

    For animals who do have an established history of being allergic to insect bites, I often get asked about giving Benadryl, which is part of the treatment protocol in allergic reactions. In the hospital setting, Benadryl is given by injection into the muscle, which works much faster than giving the medication orally. However, owners who are out on hikes and away from veterinary care often raise the concern about needing more immediate treatment. In these cases, you can carry with you, and give if needed, one milligram of Benadryl for every one pound of body weight (for example, a 50-pound dog can get 50 mg of Benadryl). This is not a substitute for veterinary care, but it can be helpful at “buying time” as you make your way to your veterinarian for evaluation. 

    Epi-Pens for Dogs

    You can also ask your veterinarian about getting a prescription for an “epi-pen” if your dog has experienced a true anaphylactic reaction in the past. This is a special syringe and needle filled with a single dose of epinephrine and is similar to the type used for people who are highly allergic. You can carry this with you on trips or hikes and use if your pet experiences another severe reaction. 

    Preventing Stings and Bites

    Owners outside with their pets should keep an eye out for foraging bees on flowers, swarms of bees and beehives, especially if Africanized bees, a more aggressive version of the European honeybee, are present in their area. They should also be wary of wasp nests and yellow jacket burrows, which can be a source of multiple stings if a pet gets too close. 

    “A single sting is usually not a big deal, but multiple stings can be life threatening and potentially have long-term complications,” adds Rutter. “Keep pets from investigating under porches/houses, in shrubbery, outbuildings or known locations of nests/hives.”

    Though insect stings are never pleasant—for pets or humans—prompt veterinary care can minimize the effects of insect stings and ensure your pet has a safe and pleasant experience with the great outdoors.

    If you suspect your pet is experiencing a reaction from an insect bite, whether it is mild or severe, please contact your veterinarian or local emergency hospital for guidance and advice. 

    Photo by Robert Bogdan

    Shea Cox earned a veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine since. In 2006, she joined PETS Referral Center. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb and cook up a storm. She shares her days with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman.