Snakes come out of hibernation in early spring, and are out and about all summer long. You may encounter snakes on trail rides, particularly in rocky areas, high grass, and thick brush. Snakes may even lurk in your own barn, hoping to feast on resident rodents.
Snakes have sharp fangs and bite very quickly. Your horse may not react initially when bitten or may spook unexpectedly then settle down. Common areas of equine snakebite are themuzzle/nose, legs, and chest.
Signs of snake bite:
- One or two small visible holes caused by fangs
- Initially a small dribble of blood at the bite site
- Heat in the general area
- Extreme localized swelling which spreads to a larger area as the venom circulates
- Limping and avoiding weight on the limb (if bit on the leg)
- Severe respiratory distress when bit on the head
- Exhibition of pain such as flared nostrils and quivering lower lip
- Eyes appear fully dilated with large black pupils
- Eventual thick discharge of venom from multiple sites
- Tissue damage from the venom
- Horse may collapse and/or seek seclusion
- Sloughing is common around a water moccasin/cottonmouth bite.
Horses can go into shock following snakebite. Uncommon snakebites from coral, cobra and mamba are neurotoxic causing initial excitement followed by general weakness, depression and muscle tremors.
If your horse has been exercising, snakebite is much more serious due to the propensity to spread the venom faster. The size of the snake also increases the risks. Per bite, a large snake injects more venom. The larger the fang spread, the larger the snake. A head bite can lead to swollen nasal passages which may close completely without immediate attention. Although venom is a concern, even more so is the presence of toxins in the blood which can come from bacterial toxemia originating from an infection at the bite.
First Aid for Equine Snakebite
1. Immediately after a bite use a sterile instrument to make shallow incisions in the bite.
Using a suction cup (over the counter kits available), remove the venom. DO NOT SUCTION BY MOUTH! There is a risk of human poisoning via mouth lesions.
2. Consider a tourniquet placed 2 inches above the bite (if on a limb area); loosen for 2-3 minutes every 15 minutes. Do not tie so tight arterial circulation is stopped.
3. Keep the horse calm while waiting for the vet.
4. Consider support such as Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic for shock, as well as Silver Linings ( www.silverlingherbs.com 1-866-543-6956) #25 INF-X and #24 Immune Support applied by mouth with a syringe to fight the infection and strengthen the horse’s immune system.
5. Using an ice pack, keep area cool to slow circulation and lessen swelling.
NOTE: All of the above should be standard first aid gear for saddle bags! Keep Penicillin G in the barn refrigerator for emergencies.
Common Veterinary Care for Snakebite:
Your vet should have antivenin for snakes common to your geographic area. It is expensive, but the best treatment available. An alternative for some vets is a broad-spectrum antibiotic (such as Penicillin G) to fight infection, corticosteroids such as dexamethasone for the inflammation (some say this is contraindicated), fluids for support and to combat shock, and Bute for pain. Many vets will also administer a tetanus booster as well. A blood test can determine the type of snake, but is usually not possible due to time constraints.
Natural Alternatives for Snakebite
Homeopathic support can be given every 30 minutes for the first 2-3 hours then continue Apis 6c for swelling 3 times a day and Arnica montana 30c hourly. Lachesis IM can be used hourly for horses with nose snakebite.
Vitamin C injections of 25 grams (50 cc) can be given intramuscularly on each side of the neck for head bites. Do not give in the vein because shock may cause vein collapse. Oral C may also be a problem due to danger of going down the windpipe in cases of relaxed muscles with severe snake bite.
Herbs , such as those in Silver Lining #24 and #25, and Patchouli ( Pogostemon cablin ), an anti-inflammatory herb, have been used for venomous snakebite.
Moxibustion can be done by a professional practitioner to speed healing around the area of the bite only after swelling has subsided and infection is not present (a minimum of 3 days after the bite).
Snakebite KEY points:
- Remove yourself and your horse from further danger
- Make a note of the type and size of the snake
- If possible DO NOT walk, ride or trailer the horse
- Call the vet. Provide useful information for the vet to identify the snake
- When available, administer snake antivenin, immune and infection supports
Fortunately snakebites are rarely fatal if treated quickly. Symptoms vary depending on the time elapsed since the bite and the amount of venom injected. Better safe than sorry.
Shari Frederick, BS, NMD, a nutritional educator and licensed aesthetician , assists horseowners in making healthier, more natural choices in horse care. She is an independent author, international lecturer and self-styled naturalist. At her Happy Horse Haven Rescue in Texas, detoxification and liver/kidney/immune supports are the FIRST steps in rehab for nearly every arriving horse. Visit Shari’s website horseshaveheart.org