Do you know where in the British Isles the most number of snake bites on dogs are reported? The answer to what sounds like a particularly niche pub question is, perhaps surprisingly, Surrey1. Most people would view the risk of dogs in the UK being bitten by a snake compared to other parts of the world, Australia, say, or the southern United States, as tiny. And they would be correct.
Approximately 100-150 dogs in the UK are taken to the vet for snake bites per year1 compared to 150,000 in dogs and cats in the US2. However, 97% of those unlucky dogs will need treatment for reactions to the bite, and around 5% sadly die. So even though it is a rare event in the UK, there are a few first aid tips worth knowing just in case you need to help a dog that has been bitten by a snake.
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There are three snake species native to the UK. Only one of them, the European Adder, Vipera berus, is venomous. You may have heard that the bite of a European Adder is no worse than a bee sting with just a bit of localised redness and swelling. In fact most dogs bitten by a snake (about 60%1) become unwell, and the heart, liver and kidneys can be affected. Small dog breeds are especially sensitive. So, it is imperative to take your dog straight to the vets if there is the slightest suspicion a snake has bitten them.
Fun facts about European Adders.
Like most reptiles, Adders hibernate during the winter in the UK. This means most snake bites occur during the summer months.
Adders can be found throughout the British Isles and like to live on heathland, sand dunes or woodland borders. Their numbers are declining, so it logically follows that the snake bite incidents will fall too. However, a warming climate may result in a shift in snake’s habits that increases in snake-dog (and people!) interactions.
They are not aggressive snakes, preferring a quick getaway to confrontation, and will only bite if cornered or provoked. Unfortunately, from the snake’s point of view, a curious dog sticking its snout in where it is not welcome is definitely grounds for self-defence.
Apart from keeping your dog on the lead in areas where Adders are known to be, another tactic you can use to minimise the risk of a snake encounter is to give the snake plenty of warning of your approach; tapping the ground with a walking stick can help. Never try to catch or kill a snake if you find it. Apart from the real risk of getting bitten yourself, the European Adder is a protected species in the UK, and it is illegal to kill or harm them.
The “Do’s” of snake bite First Aid
Most snake bites in dogs are located around the head, neck, and forelegs which contrasts with people, where it is mainly below the knee. Owners rarely witness their dog being bitten, only noticing the puncture wounds or that their dog is suddenly limping afterwards. Swelling around the bite can take up to 2 hours to appear.
If you do see the snake, taking a photo (from a safe distance) will help your vets confirm the species. However, it being likely the snake won’t hang around for a portrait, your best bet is to make a mental note of features observable from a distance that will aid identification later: length (Adders are relatively small at 40-60cm), colour (greyish, greenish, reddish-brown) and markings (a zig-zag pattern along its back).
These are the first aid steps recommended when you think your dog has been bitten by a snake;
- Keep your dog calm, avoid excessive movement (carry him your arms or, even better, in a blanket)
- Leave the bite site alone
- Take your dog straight to the vet
And some important First Aid “don’ts”
- Do not attempt to use suction to remove the venom from the wound. There is no evidence that this helps in any way, even though there are gadgets available specifically for “suction” of bee stings and snake bites.
- Do not place a tourniquet on the limb. The restriction of blood flow will elevate the concentration of the venom in the tissues and increase tissue damage.
Is there such a thing as snake first aid?
It can be difficult to tell who has come off worse in a dog vs snake encounter, and you may find a visibly injured snake alongside your freshly bitten dog. Under no circumstances should you approach and handle the snake, even if it appears lifeless, as it is a species that should not be handled or transported by the public. The RSCPA can be contacted regarding injured wildlife on 0300 1234 999. Having said that, your priority must be getting your dog to the vets as soon as possible and this should not be delayed by trying to find help for the snake.
What happens when my dog gets to the vet?
The vet will carefully assess your dog for any signs of snake bite toxicity, also known as “envenomation”. Most cases will need a period of observation. Your vet will advise if this is OK to be done at home or if it is safer done by the veterinary team in the clinic. Symptoms your vet will be watching for include localised signs of swelling, bruising, and bleeding, to more generalised signs of lethargy, depression, high temperature and vomiting.
Most treatment for snakebite is aimed at managing symptoms. For those dogs which become very ill after being bitten, your vet may recommend starting anti-venom treatment. However, they can be expensive and often not easy for vets to get hold of. In addition, anti-venom is not used preventatively in mild or asymptomatic cases. Most dogs recover after 5 days.
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References and further reading
1. Sutton NM, Bates N, Campbell A. Canine adder bites in the UK: A retrospective study of cases reported to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service. Vet Rec. 2011;169(23):607. doi:10.1136/vr.d4695
2. Armentano RA, Schaer M. Overview and controversies in the medical management of pit viper envenomation in the dog. J Vet Emerg Crit Care. 2011;21(5):461-470. doi:10.1111/j.1476-4431.2011.00677.x