Reacting to adder bites

April 25, 2023

Words: Dr Sophie Bell: BVMS MRCVS

Would you know how to react if your dog experiences an adder bite?

Adder bites typically occur 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 feel threatened. They have red eyes, a zig-zag pattern that continues down their back, and an X or V-shaped marking on the back of their head.

Some believe clipping bells to their dog's collar could warn the snake that a dog is nearby. 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 helpful if the dog runs off, making it easier for the owner to track them. Vibration is the primary way snakes sense oncoming danger.

What would happen if your dog was to be bitten?

Firstly, common bite locations are the legs, face, and neck. Reactions can vary, and you are often unaware your dog has been bitten.

They may yelp and decide not to put their foot to the ground, so they 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 two small puncture wounds.

Thankfully only approximately 5% of dogs will have a severe reaction. The remainder shows 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 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, increasing 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 tourniquet. The venom will already be in your dog's bloodstream, which would be dangerous.
  • Ignore the myth! Sucking the poison out is never advised and should not be attempted.
  • You could use cold water in the area, as it will be hot, painful, and inflamed.
  • A cold compress will help also soothe inflammation; an ice pack wrapped in thin cloth would be ideal.
  • Never vigorously rub the bite area. Any cleaning and cooling should be done gently.
  • Head to your vet; most cases will require simple medications only, such as pain relief and antibiotics to prevent infection. NEVER delay medical attention; 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 the vet advises. 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 fine, remember reactions can be delayed.

Antivenom is usually reserved for the severely affected. There are no products authorised to treat animals; therefore, it is antivenom intended for humans that are used, and veterinary clinics need a Special Treatment Certificate to import it. There is a suggestion 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 obtaining it, 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.

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Dr Sophie Bell - BVMS MRCVS Veterinary Surgeon BVMS MRCVS & Pet first aid instructor

Dr Sophie Bell, a Veterinary specialist, joined British Pet Insurance in 2022 and continues to write all things pets. Sophie is passionate about creating content for our customers to inform them on the best way of keeping their pets safe and happy.




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