Once Bitten Twice Shy
Snakes and their bites are the subject of much fear and trepidation. In Montana, over the last eight years, only 45 people have been bitten and no one has died. Inquisitive pets, however, are at greater risk. For dogs and their humans, the good news is that Montana is home to only one venomous species, Crotalus viridus, the Prairie Rattlesnake. Ubiquitous across the state, these snakes are medium-size, light brown, and carry a moderate amount of venom. They live in both arid country and ponderosa forests. They den in rocky slopes with southern exposure, and they are usually shy. And they strike when provoked by a prodding nose or exploratory paw.
So what should you do if your curious pup gets nipped while out and about? Here are some tips.
Don't Try to "Suck It Out"
Old wives' tales such as sucking out the venom or applying a tourniquet are not recommended and can actually cause more harm. Even ice packs are risky. Acceptable in-the-field treatments are antihistamines, such as Benadryl, and anti-inflammatory medications. Make sure, however, that your dose is for dog, not human, size.
Find the Bite
Identifying the snake and the bite location are also important. Approximately 75% of bites are “dry,” and not all bites are equally potent. Similarly, bites on the torso or face are more serious than on a leg or tail.
Immobilize the Dog
As in any emergency situation, staying calm is medicine in itself. After composing yourself, immobilize the area and keep it below the heart. Dr. Dawn McDonald from the Gallatin Veterinary Hospital emphasizes keeping the dog calm and minimizing movement. This prevents increased circulation and systemic dissemination of the venom.
Get Out of There
Walk or carry your dog out, if possible, and head to the vet pronto. Observe your dog’s behavior for signs such as swelling, panting, or delirium. The actual danger of a venomous bite depends on how the dog’s immune system responds, and each dog will have a different reaction. Once at the vet, I.V. therapy, antihistamines, steroids, and other methods are used to prevent shock, excessive coagulation, and organ failure.
Antivenin and the rattlesnake vaccine can also be helpful. Antivenin, a formula that denatures venom, is incredibly expensive though, and, according to Dr. McDonald, not many vets in the Gallatin Valley carry it. The vaccine also has some issues. Developed in southern California where bites are much more common, it is not intended for our Crotalus viridus, although it may be helpful. Also, due to the ethics needed to study the vaccine, it efficacy has not been extensively tested in dogs. Gallatin Veterinary Hospital does carry antivenin and will vaccinate dogs.
Many other therapies for dealing with snake bites exist and may be effective, but they are experimental. Homeopathy is always an option, and plant-based remedies such as Apis or Belladonna fit easily into a first-aid kit, though they may cause swelling. Some people even claim that Epsom-salt soaks, turmeric poultices, and even that mythical "sucking the venom out" work.