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There are many types of snakes in our area. While most snakes try to avoid your pets, they will bite as a last resort. The main concern is whether or not the offending snake is venomous or non-venomous.
If the snake involved is a non-venomous, there is still a medical concern, as these bites are painful and are prone to infection. The vet will evaluate your pet and determine what treatments are needed. Sometimes just going home with oral antibiotics and pain control meds is an option, other times hospitalization is still needed.
Pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads) are the most common poisonous snakes in our area. They can be identified by their triangle-shaped heads, the heat seeking pits between their nostrils and eyes, and their cat like eyes (elliptical pupils). These snakes inject venom when they bite. The venom contains several enzymes that cause local tissue injury, affect the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and in severe cases can interfere with blood coagulation. 85% of bite victims will have altered lab values and significant swelling. Signs can be delayed for up to 8 hours after being bitten.
If you are unsure if your pet has suffered a snakebite, a veterinarian's exam is needed. Some clues that a snake bite has occurred are: puncture wounds on the head or forelimbs local tissue swelling and pain surrounding the site, bruising or tissue necrosis surrounding bite site, small red spots on the gums or other tissue. Some animals present in shock with heavy breathing and rapid heart rate..
If a snakebite is from an unknown type of snake or if a bite is suspected, blood work will be necessary. If test abnormalities are consistent with a pit viper bite, or if a known poisonous snake has bitten your pet, treatment will be needed. Such tests include evaluation of blood coagulation ability, and sometimes evaluation for 'echinocytes' under the microscope.
The treatment of a pit viper envenomation involves controlling shock, neutralizing the venom (if antivenin is available), controlling intravascular coagulation, minimizing tissue death, and preventing any secondary infection. Veterinarians may need to use antivenin, anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, fluid therapy, etc. Antivenin is extremely expensive, and can have side effects in some individuals. If one can afford to administer antivenin, then one generally should, as survival outcomes are statistically enhanced with its use.
A venomous snake bite is a life-threatening emergency. Irreversible effects from venom begin immediately after the animal is bitten, so speed of treatment is critical. The veterinarian's knowledge and experience help her determine the appropriate treatment for your pet.
Delayed necrosis (tissue sloughing) may occur days after a snakebite, sometimes requiring reconstructive surgery.