Summer brings warmer weather, longer days and more interaction with wildlife. Unfortunately, this can lead to unwanted encounters for our pets. Recent mild winters have led to increased bites from venomous snakes and spiders in the Carolinas. This is why it’s important to know how to respond if your cat or dog is bitten.
North Carolina was the number one state in the country for human venomous snakebites in 2017. Though there is no central database that tracks snake bites in animals, we can assume animals are at greater risk as well. Copperheads, which can be found from Northern Florida to Massachusetts, are responsible for the vast majority of bites in the Carolinas. Factors such as the size of the pet, location of the bite, the amount of venom injected, and the size and age of the snake, impact to what degree the bite affects an animal. Fortunately, copperhead bites are rarely fatal if treated appropriately.
What should you do to help your cat or dog if they are bitten by a snake? If you see the snake, take note of its coloring, markings and size, or use your phone to take a picture from a safe distance away. Locate the bite on your pet and, if it is on a leg, apply a constricting band just above the bite to slow the spread of the venom. It should be snug but not too tight. Keep your pet as quiet as possible, and get him or her to the nearest veterinary hospital as quickly as possible. Over time, myths about what you should do to treat a snakebite have spread. These myths are ineffective and also dangerous. So please, DO NOT try to catch the snake. DO NOT make a cut in the skin over the puncture wounds, and DO NOT try to suck the venom out of the bite wound!
Snake venom can cause significant inflammation, damage blood vessels, interfere with blood clotting and cause destruction of local tissues. Therefore, wound care and general supportive care are most important. At the veterinary hospital, the wounds will be clipped and cleaned and, if necessary, the animal will be hospitalized with IV fluids, anti-inflammatory medication, antihistamines, and antibiotics. Most veterinary hospitals do not treat copperhead bites with antivenin due to excessive cost and the risk of an allergic reaction.
Most spiders are somewhat venomous, but only a small number can inflict significant harm to cats and dogs. Black widow and brown recluse spiders are dangerous for pets and both are found in the North Carolina piedmont. A bite from a black widow can cause vomiting and diarrhea, blood pressure changes, severe muscle pain and cramping, tremors, and serious respiratory issues that can lead to death. Treatment of pets who have been bitten involves symptomatic supportive care, including IV fluids, pain medications, and muscle relaxants. Brown recluse spiders have a different type of venom that causes severe tissue damage at and around the bite wound site. Animals bitten by a brown recluse can develop fever, lethargy, significant swelling, inflammation, bruising, chronic skin lesions, vomiting and damage to the liver and kidneys. These bites can also be fatal to pets. Immediate veterinary care is important and will often require extensive wound treatment and supportive care.
Keeping dogs on a leash and cats indoors will do the most to minimize interactions with snakes and spiders. For those dogs with lots of land to roam and cats that need to be outdoors, it is important to regularly look them over for wounds and keep all outdoor bedding and shelters cleaned out. If your animal is bitten, seek immediate veterinary attention for the best possible outcome for your pet.
Originally published August 2018 in the Herald Citizen.