What happens if my dog gets bitten by an adder?

Snake in the grass

Snake bites to dogs in the UK aren’t particularly common but they do occasionally happen. The only venomous snake native to the UK is the Adder (Vipera berus). They tend to live in sand dunes, rocky hillsides, moorland and woodlands, more commonly in the south east and south west of England, west Wales, and rural Scotland. Unfortunately, bites are very common in these areas, especially in the warmer weather when the snakes come out to bask.

What snakes are there in the UK?

There are two other species of snake within the UK, the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) and the Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca); however, neither are venomous. The Grass Snake looks quite similar to the Adder, with both having wavy or zig-zag markings along their bodies – although the Adder has a characteristic pale “V” or “X” shaped mark on the back of its head. However, we do not recommend poking or investigating the snake more closely, as Adder bites are unpleasant in humans as well; Adders are also a protected species so it is illegal to harm them. If you suspect a snake bite, assume it’s an adder and seek veterinary attention immediately!

 

Why do snakes bite dogs?

Bites most commonly occur on the legs, feet or face – generally after dogs have been rooting around in the undergrowth. Adders usually only bite in self defence, so curious dogs and puppies may be more likely to unintentionally provoke a snake. While your dog may indeed be trying to play, unfortunately Adders are not a particularly social species and are unlikely to accept that excuse. Instead, they see  large predator approaching them, and they will respond to protect themselves – and that usually involves striking.

 

How poisonous is an adder?

Adders are part of the Viper family, and use their elongated fangs to inject venom from sacs above their mouths into whoever they have bitten. The venom includes at least ten different components, which can break down tissues, prevent clotting, and even disrupt cell signalling.

 

How would I know if my dog was bitten by an adder?

There are a range of symptoms, which may include:

  • Painful swelling – usually localised around one or two bite marks where the bite occurred, often very rapid in onset (within 2 hours); if around the nose or throat, this can be life-threatening.
  • Pale gums – from shock.
  • Excessive salivating – especially if bitten on the nose or muzzle.
  • Lethargy or collapse.
  • Lameness (usually if bitten on a limb).
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.
  • More serious complications can occur in a small percentage of dogs, including kidney problems or bleeding and clotting disorders.

 

What should I do if my dog is bitten?

If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a snake, then you should seek veterinary attention urgently. Keep them as calm and still as possible, prevent them from moving around too much as this promotes the spread of the venom into the bloodstream. Ideally carry your dog.

 

What will the vet do?

The vet will perform a full clinical examination of your dog and determine a treatment plan. This will depend on the location and extent of the swelling. If your dog is showing any symptoms of being systemically unwell, they are likely to need more aggressive treatment.

 

Can adder bites in dogs be treated?

Treatment often includes hospitalisation (minimum 24 hours), strong painkillers and anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, and intensive intravenous fluid therapy (drip fluids). In most cases, vets will recommend the use of antivenom to counteract the poisons, although it is not always available. Most dogs don’t need antibiotics as there are very few bacteria in a snake bite. Some anti-inflammatories (such as steroids) we use only with caution. In some cases they can slow down the body’s natural response to the venom.

Bites on the nose or throat are the most dangerous, as the swelling can make it difficult for the dog to breathe. In these cases, more potent drugs, or even placing a surgical airway (a “tracheostomy tube”) to allow the dog to breathe may be needed.

 

How likely is it that my dog will survive?

Overall, studies suggest that 97% of dogs who are bitten will show symptoms, but over 95% will survive the experience. The vast majority of dogs go on to make a full recovery within 5 days with appropriate treatment. However, it is very important not to delay in seeking veterinary attention.

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