Rattlesnake Bites the Dog

The dos, the don’ts, and the myths of snake bites in dogs.
By Shea Cox DVM, CVPP, CHPV, July 2012
snake bite on dog

What do you do if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake?
• Recognize it immediately as a life-threatening emergency that requires professional help.
• Keep your dog calm to slow the venom’s spread through the blood and organs.
• Don’t touch the wound, apply a tourniquet or try to suck it out.
• Call the closest emergency vet, tell them you’re coming in with a rattlesnake bite, and confirm they have enough antivenin in stock for your dog’s weight.
• Get there as quickly as you safely can; minutes matter.

We all love to bask in the California sun and rattlesnakes are no exception. Snakebite envenomation is something that is frequently seen in the ER, in fact, we treated three pets for this just this past weekend alone! Sadie, an 11-week old Cocker Spaniel, was one of those patients. She was gardening with her Mom when a rattlesnake bit her.

Poisonous snakes of the United States belong to two groups: pit vipers and elapids. Pit vipers are the largest group and include at least 26 subspecies of rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.), with the Western Rattlesnake being the most common in this region. An excellent rattlesnake resource guide that includes pictures of the many species of California rattlesnakes, can be found on the California Herp(etology) website.

What Does Snake venom Do?

An understanding of the function of venom is helpful in appreciating how envenomation works. The snake uses its venom to immobilize the victim and predigest body tissues. There are over 50 types of enzymes in pit viper venom, with a minimum of 10 in any individual snakes venom. Additionally, there are many other non-enzymes present in the venom, called killing fractions, which are 50 times more toxic than the “crude” venom. When the snake venom destroys the body tissues, it is possible for up to 1/3 of a dog’s body fluid to be lost into the tissue spaces within several hours, which can result in life-threatening drops in blood pressure resulting in shock.


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What Can Make a Snake Bite worse?

Several factors influence the severity of snake bites in dogs. The most important factors are the volume of venom injected into the dog and the toxicity of the venom itself. Other factors include:

  • The amount of regenerated venom since the last bite: there is more venom and it is more concentrate if the snake hasn’t bitten in a while.
  • Aggressiveness of the snake: the more threatened they feel, the more concentrated the venom.
  • Motivation of the snake: offensive strikes are more severe.
  • The size of the pet being bitten: smaller dogs and cats are more severely affected than large dogs due to their small body size to venom ratio. Smaller dogs have less body to “absorb” the amount of venom from a snake.
  • The size of the bite
  • The location of the bite: the “best” place to be bitten is in the legs or face as the regional swelling and changes in the local blood supply can actually slow the uptake of the venom; envenomation to the body is more concerning as the broader area allows for the venom to be absorbed more rapidly; bites to the tongue are the worst and result in rapid and devastating clinical signs.
  • Time: The time elapsed from bite until seeking medical treatment.
  • Dog’s activity level: The amount of physical activity since the time of the bite.

What are the signs of a snake Bite on Dogs?

Snake bites are not always easy to diagnose, especially if it was an unobserved bite and if the dog has a heavy fur coat that may hide puncture wounds. With pit viper snakebites, you can usually see bleeding puncture wounds and multiple (or single) puncture sites may be observed on the dog. The initial signs of a snake bite on dogs are marked swelling, which is due to the tissue destruction and body fluid “leaking” into the damaged area. See the picture of the little Chihuahua above, showing a what a typical bite to the face looks like.

Additional clinical signs may develop immediately or be delayed for several hours after the snake bite. Bruising and skin discoloration often occurs within hours of the snake bite because the venom causes the blood to not clot. There is usually intense and immediate pain at the site of the bite, which helps differentiate snake bites from other causes of swelling, and swelling is generally progressive for up to 36 hours. Symptoms of snake bites for dogs also include swelling, skin discoloration, collapse, vomiting, muscle tremors, shock, depression in breathing and even death.

What to do if a snake bites your Dog

If your dog is bitten by a snake, it is best to assume it is a venomous bite. Seek veterinary attention as soon as possible! Keep your pet calm and immobile, carry if necessary. If you can do it safely, please take these extra measures prior to transporting to your vet:

  • If the swelling is not in the face, muzzle your dog to avoid being bitten: snake bites are very painful and your pet may unintentionally snap at you; if the swelling is in the face, avoid touching this area all together.
  • Immobilize the part of your dog that has been bitten by the snake; try to keep the area at or below the level of the heart.

When dogs are bit by snakes, Dr. Dalton Hindmarsh, a veterinary resident at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, advises “First, you should keep your pet calm and seek veterinary care,” he said. “Contrary to what you may read on the internet, I would not recommend giving any medications at home, including things like Benadryl, without first consulting your veterinarian. I would also not recommend a tourniquet or trying to suck the venom out.”

What NOT to do if a snake bites your Dog

If your dog is bitten by a snake, do not try to suck out the venom! This technique only works for John Wayne in old Western movies. Again, your goal should be to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

  • Do not attempt to “make an X” and cut open the area around the bite, you will only cause a wound.
  • Do not bother to use a Snake Bite Kit or Extractor Pump, they will actually do more harm to your pet- and your wallet!.
  • Do not apply ice to the snakebite area. Applying ice would constricts the blood vessels locally and actually concentrates the venom causing severe muscle damage to the area.
  • Do not rub any substances into the snake bite. At this point, the venom from the snake has entered the blood stream, and any substance applied topically is ineffectual.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet: you will only succeed in causing further tissue damage and possibly create a need for limb amputation.
  • Do not allow your pet to move about freely.
  • Do not attempt to capture the snake for later identification (you’d be surprised…)

What is the treatment for Snakebites?

Since the onset of clinical signs can be delayed for several hours, all pets that have been bitten by a snake should be hospitalized for at least 12 hours and ideally 24 hours. Although most pets generally need to be supported and monitored, the vast majority (95%) do survive with early and proper treatment.

Antivenom is the only proven treatment against pit viper envenomation, and the earlier it is administered, the more effective its action. The biggest downside to antivenom is cost, and it can range anywhere from $450-$700 per vial.  Usually a single vial will control the envenomation but several vials may be necessary, especially in small dogs or cats.  Many animals may do “fine” without it, but it does decrease the severity of clinical signs, as well as speed overall recovery with a reduction in complications.

Hindmarsh also said that prophylactic antibiotics are typically not prescribed, since the risk of infection from a snake bite is less than 1 percent. Steroid medications or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) pain medications are also not usually involved in treatment of a snake bite, as they have a high risk of side effects and no documented treatment benefit.

Blood work is also recommended to monitor your pet’s platelet count as well as clotting times of the blood. IV fluid support, intensive pain management, antibiotics and wound monitoring are required for best clinical outcomes. Blood and plasma transfusions are sometimes needed in severe envenomation.

There is a “snake-bite vaccine” that may be useful, but there have been no controlled studies for its effectiveness. The main benefit of the vaccine is that it may create protective antibodies to neutralize some of the injected venom, and in turn may lessen the severity of the clinical signs. One of the biggest myths is that if your pet has had the vaccine, then they don’t need to be treated if they are bitten; this is not true, and they still require the same treatment despite being given a vaccine or not!

dog snake bite

Tips for Snakebite prevention

There are several simple things you can do to help prevent a snake bite to your dog. Most importantly, stay on open paths while hiking with your pet. Be sure to keep your dog on leash and away from high grass and rocky outcrops where snakes like to rest. If you see a snake, remember that a snake can strike only a distance of half its body length; give the snake time to “just go away” as they are not looking to interact with you or your dog.

  • Don’t let your pet explore holes or dig under rocks.
  • Keep an open ear for that telltale rattling noise and keep your pet at your side until you determine where the sound is coming from, and then move slowly away.
  • Don’t let your pet examine a dead snake as they still can envenomate.
  • Around your home, cut off the snakes food supply and shelter by mowing close to the house, storing firewood away from the house, plugging up holes in the ground, and limiting birdseed waste which can attract rodents to your home.

If you end up seeing a snake the next time you and your pet are enjoying the outdoors, Hindmarsh advises that you “leave the snake alone, back away, and leave the area.”

Thankfully, most snakes will try to avoid you and your pets and typically only bite as a last resort. But if your pet does happen to get bitten by a snake that you think might be venomous, it is best to err on the side of caution and get medical attention immediately. As always, feel free to ask questions or leave comments!

Photo courtesy the author, PETS Referral Center

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.