Adder Bites in Dogs – Full Guide
23 September 2022
Adder Bites in Dogs - Full Guide from Dr Sophie Bell
Adder bites typically occurred during the warmer months of April to July. Still, with changes in our climate, this window of possibility has increased, and bites are happening as late as October and as early as March. It is an excellent idea, as a dog walker to research the places where you usually walk to see if adders do make an appearance there, if so, keep dogs close to you and stick to the paths. It is not just wooded/heathland areas where they are found; adders also enjoy sandy locations.
These snakes are protected, and their numbers are rapidly declining. Typically, they are shy, but of course, are likely to bite if startled or feeling threatened. They have red eyes, and a zig-zag pattern that continues down their back, and an X or V-shaped marking on the back of their head.
Some believe that clipping bells to their dog’s collar could warn the snake that a dog is close by. These loud bells are often termed Adder bells.
With no external ears, and thought to have very poor hearing, this is still an anecdotal belief. Snakes are believed to pick up some sounds, but the sound of bells may not be one of them. However, my opinion as a vet is that bells can be useful if the dog was to run off making it easier for the owner to track them. Vibration is the main way snakes sense oncoming danger.
What happens if your dog was to be bitten?
Firstly, common bite locations are the legs, face, and neck. Reactions can vary, and often you are not aware your dog has been bitten.
They may yelp and decide not to put their foot to the ground so appear lame if bitten on the foot or leg. However not all reactions are instant, it could be hours until you notice a problem. You may see bruising, swelling, and 2 small puncture wounds.
Thankfully only approximately 5% of dogs will have a severe reaction. The remainder show similar symptoms as those seen with a bee or a wasp sting but all animal bites are classed as dirty, be it from another dog or an adder so never leave it to chance as they can cause nasty infections.
Severe reactions can lead to collapse, the dog can look lethargic and breathe fast or pant along with drooling and a fast pulse rate. They may vomit and are likely to have a fever and look uncoordinated when walking this can lead to seizures, and problems with blood clotting so you may see blood from orifices such as the nose and mouth, and they can suffer organ failure all leading to death. These cases are the ones in urgent need of veterinary care where one part of their treatment will be antivenom.
The dogs more likely to have severe reactions are:
- Smaller breeds
- Dogs with other health problems
- Dogs who move lots post bite
- The bite location. Bites can cause enormous swelling, so if around the face or neck area may restrict breathing which could be life-threatening
How can you help?
- Calm your dog immediately following a bite. You must remain calm if you have seen the bite, acting frantic around them can cause added stress which will increase their heart rate.
- Carry them if you can or sit with them for a few minutes, do not allow them to race around, try and keep the heart rate steady. This will slow the speed the venom spreads around your dog’s body and potentially reduce the severity of the reaction.
- Never apply anything tight to the area such as a torniquet. The venom will already be in your dog’s bloodstream so this would be dangerous.
- Ignore the myth! Sucking the poison out is never advised and should not be attempted.
- You could use cold water on the area, as it will be hot, painful, and inflamed.
- A cold compress will help also soothe inflammation; an ice pack wrapped in a thin clothe would be ideal.
- Never vigorously rub the bite area, any cleaning and cooling should be done gently.
- Head to your vets, most cases will require simple medications only, such as pain relief and antibiotics to prevent infection. NEVER delay medical attention and do call to let them know you are on your way if you can.
- Keep the dog calm during travel and never administer medications unless advised by the vet. Remember oral medications can take some time to work and may not have started working by the time your reach your vet. This could interfere with their treatment plan.
Top tip: Some common antihistamines can trigger seizures in epileptic animals, once again a strong reminder never to administer anything without your vet’s advice.
What will your vet do?
As mentioned, this will be classed as a contaminated wound. As a vet I have seen several cases where the wound starts small but a large area of skin around it can become necrotic, which means the skin dies and sloughs off. Antibiotics will be given to reduce the risk of this occurring. Of course, pain relief will be needed.
Your vet may recommend a short stay at the hospital to monitor them post-bite even if they initially appear to be fine, remember reactions can be delayed.
Anti-venom is usually reserved for the severely affected. There are no products authorised to treat animals, therefore it is anti-venom intended for humans that is used and veterinary clinics need a Special Treatment Certificate to import it. There is a suggestion to say that even those mild to moderately affected would benefit from the antivenom if given within the first 24 hours, however, due to its short supply and difficulty in obtaining, they are often managed without it.
Veterinary clinics can contact a scheme called ToxBox in an emergency as many clinics do not have antivenom. This service gives clinics access to life-saving drugs that are needed but unlikely to be stocked. Clinics can also contact others in the area to see if they have it in stock, and local hospitals.
You may be required to drive some distance to collect the antivenom whilst your dog remains under the vet’s care receiving supportive treatment, which may also include intravenous fluid therapy. That may come as a shock to you, but your role is extremely important.
Be vigilant and always get immediate veterinary help if an Adder bites your dog.
Dr Sophie Bell - BVMS MRCVS Veterinary Surgeon BVMS MRCVS & Pet first aid instructor
Dr Sophie Bell, a Veterinary specialist, started working with British Pet Insurance in 2022 and continues to write for them on all things pet from a veterinary and medical point of view. Sophie is passionate about informing owners on how to keep their pets safe and happy.