Our Costa Rican tropical weather has warmed up again and so those venomous snakes are becoming more active and the risk rises for snake bites.

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I would like to share some information with you folks that just may save the life of your pet or keep from having to do an amputation later. For those of us living in the “outback” we often have to perform emergency medical procedures to save the life of our special animal friends when time is of essence and medical personnel are too far away.

When bitten by theses robust, heavy duty “commercial grade” pit vipers here in Costa Rica, always keep in mind that time is of the essence in determining the outcome of a snake bite victim. The most potent venom from these pit vipers here in our area of Arenal – Tilaran and actually in most of Costa Rica is from the Fer-De-Lance (Terciopelo).

This large and powerful animal carries very toxic and tissue damaging venom. The Bush Master is even more toxic but I haven’t seen one in our area of Arenal – Tilaran. They are more common on the Caribbean side and around the Osa Peninsula. So, it is with the Fer-De-Lance that I have personal experience

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One year in July I was faced with a local snake bite victim: a Black Lab/mix of approximately 40 lbs. We administered supportive first aid treatment but were unable to secure the Crotalid anti-venom and inject her until 5 hours had passed after the bite. She was a strong and reasonably healthy little dog and did survive the initial bite. However, because of the duration of time that elapsed until we could get the anti-venom into her she suffered horrific tissue damage and it was a two month battle to save her leg.

After much medicine, time and mucho dinero I was able to save her leg and all of the tissue regenerated which was previously destroyed down to the bone. She now has only a small ring of scar tissue on her leg as a memory of her terrible ordeal. The little dog is truly a miracle and I am thankful she is doing so well.

Another dog I know who was bitten the following year suffered much less tissue damage because his owner injected the anti-venom into him within the first 10 minutes. Because of the horror of the previous case history, I began telling everyone that year that I knew to please go and purchase a box of Veterinary Anti-Venom (you can buy it at Dos Pinos veterinary supply) and keep it in the refrigerator for an emergency.

On my insistence, my friend did just that and administered it perfectly. I had advised him if a snake bite occurred to inject the first vial ASAP into the muscle just above the snake bite near the shoulder or hip (if the bite is on a leg/paw of course) the consensus is to inject it into healthy tissue (don’t put it into the bite itself as that tissue is already compromised and won’t circulate well into the blood stream where it is needed).

By injecting it just at some site above the wound, the idea is to not only begin to save his life, but to try to minimize much tissue damage later. Remember a snake bite victim has two battles to fight to win the war. Within the first several hours to days is to save the life, and after that is to save the limb/tissue.

So, the difference between the Black lab dog and my friend’s Great Dane is that the Dane received the first vial of anti-venom just above the bite wound within ten minutes and helped immensely in circumventing the horrible tissue damage. The Dane suffered much less – almost no – tissue damage compared to the little Lab and mainly because of the time factor for injecting the anti-venom.

So, while any venomous snake bite is serious, tissue damage and saving the life is greatly impacted by quick response with injection of anti-venom. Not only can the life be saved, but the limb has a better chance of being saved with the quick response. It is always good to be able to identify the snake, but don’t waste valuable time chasing it down. The anti-venom used is the same for all pit vipers.

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Here is a tried and tested emergency protocol for your dog. (To date, I have not treated a cat for snake bite.)

Coral snake poisoning requires a different anti-venom for Elapids and I haven’t purchased that type as they are far less of a threat here than the large fanged Pit vipers.

You have already purchased the veterinary anti-venom and have it waiting in your fridge. (Not frozen, just refrigerated.) When purchasing it, the label reads: Suero, Antiofidico, Polivalente.

All of the following are purchased over the counter at a veterinarian supply but you should check with your vet for advice and for the dosage for the weight of your pet. Have your syringes and medicines together with a note to yourself with the dosages and procedure already figured ahead of time. You won’t have the mindset to sit down and figure dosages in an emergency and will be wasting valuable time.

Please check with your veterinarian about the dosage for your pet which will vary with it’s weight but inject the following in this order:

  1. Injectable Dexamethasone (anti-inflammatory to combat a possible allergic reaction to either the venomor the anti-venom).
  2. Injectable Pennicilin/Streptomycin, or Amoxicillin, (antibiotic) (Snake bites will always bring on infections usually of the worst kind.)
  3. Injectable Atropine Sulfate (helps keep vitals stable).

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All of the above are best injected into the shoulder muscle about 4 inches from the spine (depending on the size of your dog).

  • As soon as you know of the snake bite, run and inject the dexamethasone, to try to act as a preventative for possible allergic reaction of either the venom or the anti-venom.
  • Immediately afterward, looking at the largest muscle above the bite wound, inject all of the first vial of anti-venom. Have your vet give you some instructions for I.M. injections if you don’t know how. (The box of anti-venom comes with 4 vials in it)
  • Then inject the antibiotic and the atropine sulfate.

Do nothing to the bite wound at all! Do not cut or suck or ligate (tie) as this has proven to cause far more tissue damage and infection increase the danger of losing the limb. Le the vet handle the wound.

Grab the box with the other three vials (In case the vet is out of it) and put your pet in the car and head for the veterinarian’s clinic. In the Arenal – Tilaran area, I have great experience with Lilian Sancho at the veterinary clinic in Canas. (You might get her cell phone number as well as the phone at her clinic ahead of time) and be prepared by knowing the directions to the clinic ahead of time. Once at the clinic, the expert doctors will be able to take it from there.

The Black Lab/mix received the supportive treatment (dexamethasone, atropine sulfate, antibiotics (and we had morphine for pain, but morphine is a controlled drug not available to the general public) within 30 minutes of the bite and I can greatly attribute that to keeping her stable until we could get the antivenom injected.

The Great Dane only received the antivenom and then headed to the vet clinic so he didn’t receive the supportive medicine ahead of time, BUT, remember that a huge Great Dane has size on its side which is an advantage during poisoning.

He didn’t appear to suffer any allergic reaction. I recommend the supportive drugs, especially the Dexamethasone as you don’t know if your dog will be allergic to either the anti-venom or the venom or not. The other supportive drugs aid the stability of the animal.

Snakebites in Cats:

I haven’t had personal experience with cats bitten by a snake as deadly as a Fer-De-Lance, but it would be a gravely serious situation due to the small size of the animal even though cats are reputed as being somewhat more tolerant to venom. Remember however, the smaller the victim, the greater percentage of poisoning they have… So here is when size counts)

So, my advice would be to hurry and inject the dexamethasone and atropine sulfate as quickly as possible because the cat will most likely begin to suffer disturbances in heart rate, respiration and others. Then, I would inject the first vial of anti-venom and head to the vets clinic as soon as possible, and depending on how far you are from the vets office, you may have to begin injecting other vials one by one (the first above the wound site and the others in the other quadrants of the cat, evenly spaced out).

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I can’t emphasize how serious a snake bite wound is in a cat, so basically it is a fight to save it’s life and if it were my cat even without a proven protocol when you are out in the countryside you just have to use what you have and the most powerful medicine is the anti-venom. Good Luck!

Important Disclaimer:

I am not a veterinarian, but am a microbiologist-zoologist with many years experience with medicine of both exotics and domestic animals, and so even though my suggestions are sound, I can’t be held responsible for the outcome of your pet as there are too many factors contributing to the survival.

I have also consulted at great length with veterinarians and we are all in agreement and of the same mindset with regard to this emergency protocol. This information is provided freely in the hopes that it may save the life/ limb of a beloved pet.

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Written by Gloria Dempsey. Zoologist in Arenal, Costa Rica. April 2008

If you would to contribute to the rescue and care of wildlife in Costa Rica, please send US cashier’s cheques to our Zoologist friend in Arenal Gloria Dempsey:

Gloria Dempsey

5717-28 Nuevo Arenal – Tilaran

Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

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There is one comment:

  • Arleigh Daniel at 7:08 pm

    Gloria, if you get this message please get in touch. it has been a while since we communicated. 770-382-2906. Send me your telephone number and I will call you.

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