Years ago I heard that the majority of snake bite wounds in men are on the hands and the majority of snake bite wounds in women are on the feet and legs. It’s a gender thing. Like most women, I’d be hard pressed to try to touch or catch a snake! Call it fear. Call it intelligence. Call it lack of testosterone. We won’t decide that today. I just know I’d be headed in the other direction! Similarly, snake bites are probably more common in dogs than cats, but when I had a 12 inch snake slithering around my pool enclosure last week my cats definitely thought it was a cat toy. They were not happy with me when I chased them into the house and shooed the little snake out the pool enclosure door into the back yard.

I’m no expert on snakes. I practiced in metropolitan Portland, Oregon for 17 years before moving to South Florida 2 years ago. Soon after arriving, I was watching a cable show filmed here in South Florida showcasing a team of government officials whose job was to catch and relocate dangerous snakes. I didn’t sleep right for a few days after that show! Just a few weeks ago one of the techs at the clinic (where I work part-time) told me that her own beagle died of a snake bite. Though various regions in the US are at higher risk, I thought this might be interesting to our readers as well. Learning about the neurotoxic, cardiac and coagulation effects of snake bites might even make you think, “Gee, I’m glad my pet only has diabetes!”

Antivenin (aka anti-venom) is spendy! I did a quick search to find that the polyvalent Crotalidae (pit viper) antivenin appears to be about $1,500 per vial. Most clinics cannot afford to stock it, so if you are in a snake endemic area your local veterinary ER or human hospital may be where you’ll scramble to find it in a hurry. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the presence of mind to identify the type of snake that bit their sweetie, if the bite was even witnessed. Each situation is different. It may have been a “dry bite” or may have been venomous. Clearly the location matters as swelling near an airway could be problematic. The size of the pet and the size of the snake matter, too. Regardless, get your pet to the pet hospital immediately. Time is of the essence.

If it is a venomous snake bite, I think it wise to start with a vial of antivenin if clinical signs have begun. One way to think of it is that you could either spend your money early using the antivenin or spend your money later for additional hospitalization and supportive care. The antivenin can decrease the hospital stay by several days and decrease the tissue necrosis and pain. If it was a venomous bite, the extent of the damage will certainly be lessened if antivenin is given. There are a variety of thoughts on how much and when to give antivenin, but the truth is that there are no animal studies to tell us definitively. And with the extreme cost of antivenin, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to afford such studies. If nothing else, antivenin is known to decrease the pain in humans, so starting with a vial is not a bad idea if finances allow. Giving it within a few hours of the snake bite is ideal. Unfortunately, you won’t really know if it was truly necessary unless the pet dies. If it were my own pet, I would do my best to give the antivenin.

Other treatments include pain medications, IV fluid support if the pet is in shock or hypotensive, possible bandaging of the snake bite wound, monitoring laboratory parameters, possibly giving anti-inflammatories (very controversial as they might further affect clotting ability), and possibly giving antibiotics. Cool compresses and therapeutic laser might help the inflammation. Your vet will watch the ECG and monitor blood work and repeatedly examine your pet. Even if your pet seems fine at the moment, your veterinarian will likely hospitalize your pet for monitoring.

Your vet will watch for a low platelet count, the presence of echinocytes (blood cells that are suspicious for envenomation), anemia, elevated white blood cell count, dropping protein levels and prolonged coagulation times. (To get those lab results in a hurry your pet might be transferred the ER clinic where they have coag machines. A general practice would likely have to send that lab work out and results would take longer).

Like many Americans, I spend a lot of time reading about what I can do to better my health. I want to live a long and fruitful life. We watch our cholesterol and exercise X many times per week, then all of a sudden something completely unexpected comes up. Snake bites occur throughout the Unites States, and sometimes knowing what to do at the right moment can make all the difference.


NOTE: Consult your Veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work and is the President and Founder of Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida.
Dr . Joi Sutton