Happy black dog in grassy field

Insect bites and stings

Team Walmart Pets

June 1, 2021

5

min read

While spiders, bees and snakes tend to make us humans panic, for our cats and dogs, if it slithers, crawls or flies — it’s fair game to chase or pounce on. This is especially true for puppies and kittens who haven’t yet learned that these creatures are not looking for playmates.

Luckily, most insect bites and stings do little damage to our pets, who will recover with nothing more than a large dose of TLC. But interactions with some bees, wasps, spiders and snakes can send our dogs and cats to the emergency room.

Stings from bees and wasps

Bees and wasps are found throughout North America and the globe. Playful dogs and cats interact with them by accidentally disturbing a nest, encountering a swarm or by finding one to chase in the backyard.  

Bee stings usually occur when it’s warmer out, and depending on how your pet reacts, you may not even realize that they’ve been stung. On the other hand, their reaction might send you racing to the emergency vet. Mostly, the reactions are somewhere in between.

Bee and wasp stings, like spider bites on dogs, are often a diagnosis of presumption unless you are lucky enough to see the bite happen or find a stinger embedded in your pet’s skin. However, it's rare to find a stinger in a furry dog or cat, and studies show that the venom is delivered in the first 60 seconds. If your pet has a severe reaction, don’t worry about searching for stingers — focus on getting your pet to the vet.

What to do if your dog gets stung by a bee or wasp

Most often, dog bee stings cause temporary, localized pain and redness. In these cases, you might not know that your pet was even stung. Bee stings can also cause a more generalized reaction, which includes facial swelling, hives and itchiness. A swollen muzzle is a classic dog reaction to a bee sting.

If your pet is highly allergic or got stung multiple times, they may have an anaphylactic reaction which could result in breathing problems, physical collapse or even death. Anaphylaxis occurs when pets are exposed to venom from multiple stings or if the dog or cat is highly sensitive to stings, where one can be fatal.

If you know your pet has been stung by a bee or wasp, call your vet for advice on how best to treat your particular pet. Your vet may recommend an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl® to treat the sting, or administer injectable meds to help stem the allergic reaction more immediately. 

If your pet experiences weakness or vomiting following a sting, you should consider this an emergency and proceed accordingly. Treatment for anaphylactic shock will require a trip to the emergency vet, and even with aggressive treatment, some of the pets who suffer from this may die.

Though some reactions are more severe than others, witnessing your pet in distress from a bee sting is stressful and unsettling. To help your pet stay protected:

  • Avoid grass and clover areas where bees are plentiful.
  • Teach your dog the command “leave it” in case she happens upon a bee or nest.
  • If your pet does get stung by a bee — play it safe and call your vet.
  • Ask your vet about an EpiPen® if your pet is highly sensitive to stings, to guarantee quick administration of epinephrine. 

Spider bites on dogs and cats

Your dog getting stung by a bee or wasp is far more common than finding a spider bite on your dog. Any spider can bite, but only two in the United States have bites with a potentially deadly punch: the black widow and the brown recluse spiders. 

Black widow spiders are notorious and ubiquitous — their hourglass-adorned bellies are present in every state except Alaska, but they are most commonly found in eastern and southwestern states. 

Brown recluse spiders are less common because they tend to hide out in dark, out-of-the-way places. They are found in the southern states and up the Mississippi River Valley to southern Wisconsin. Smaller than black widow spiders, their bodies are about 1 cm in diameter and they sport a fiddle-shaped mark on their backs.  

Rarely, tarantulas or scorpions (yes, they’re arachnids, too!) could also cross your pet’s path. If you live in an area where these more exotic critters are present, talk to your vet about how best to protect your pet.

What does a spider bite look like?

Diagnosing a spider bite is difficult, as the bite wound is tiny and usually obscured by fur, although you may see swelling or redness at the site. In most cases, treatment is based on the presumption, do the symptoms fit for a spider bite? If you happen to see your pet near one of these spiders, and they show symptoms of a bite, tell your vet right away. 

Cats are highly sensitive to the venom of the black widow spider, and bites can quickly become fatal. While dogs tend to handle the venom better, small dogs are also at a higher risk of fatality.

Black widow bites

Bites from a black widow spider cause pets intense pain, either at the site of the bite itself or as generalized pain that mimics severe abdominal disease. Cats and dogs with black widow bites will often whine and/or howl persistently in discomfort. Swelling, respiratory distress, muscle tremors and drooling often accompany bites from black widow spiders, and in severe cases, paralysis and death can occur. 

Brown recluse bites

Bites from a brown recluse spider are less likely to cause such severe reactions, but can still do a number on your pets. The hallmark of the brown recluse spider bite is severe tissue necrosis at the bite site. This necrosis can turn into a large open wound that could take months to heal. While people and pets can be allergic to spider bites, most clinical signs are a direct result of the spider’s venom.

Thankfully, spider bites from the two major players are rare, and only occasionally require serious medical intervention. Treatment for severe black widow spider bites will require hospitalization for blood pressure and seizure monitoring, intravenous fluids, and the administration of muscle relaxers. 

Brown recluse spider bites can usually be managed on an outpatient basis unless the wound requires more intensive treatment. 

Snake bites on dogs and cats

In the United States, venomous snakes are either coral snakes or pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. Copperheads are responsible for the most bites, but the majority of fatalities are from rattlesnake bites. If you live in an area where snakes are common, educate yourself about the types your pet may encounter. 

Snake bite symptoms

Snake bites cause a variety of reactions, most notably pain and swelling around the bite site. The venom contains many different types of toxins, as well as potent anticoagulants, which prevent the blood from clotting, so there may be lots of bleeding at the bite wound. 

Other common signs might include respiratory distress, muscle tremors, severe muscle weakness and seizures. The severity of the symptoms does not always correlate with the severity of the injury, though, and they may take a few hours to emerge. Even if a bite looks “minor” on a large dog – or if you witness a bite but your pet seems fine – seek veterinary attention immediately.

Treatment

Most of the time, a snake bite diagnosis is based on an eyewitness account of the incident. If you saw the bite happen, try to identify the snake or note any distinguishing features to help identify it. If you didn’t see the snake, your vet will likely be able to piece together your pet's clinical signs and test results, such as testing your pet’s blood to see if it will clot (most snake venoms are anticoagulants that prevent clotting) to come to the diagnosis of a snake bite.

If the bite is on your pet’s leg, get your pet to the vet immediately. Treatment focuses on neutralizing the toxins in the snake’s venom with anti-venin, which is snake-specific, so the type of snake that bit your pet will need to be determined. Anti-venin is very expensive and can be difficult to locate, depending on your proximity to a human hospital or the frequency of snakebites in your area.

It’s likely that your veterinarian will want to keep your pet in the hospital for about two days in order to receive antibiotics, IV fluids to combat shock and other supportive treatments as needed. 

Preventing bites and stings 

One of the best ways to avoid accidental altercations with noxious neighbors is to educate your family about them. Secondly, exercise caution when your pet’s got his nose to the ground. If you live in an area where snakes or spiders are common, try to identify which kinds are near to you. Knowing this will be helpful for your vet if an incident does occur. If you have even the slightest suspicion of critter contact, get your pet to the vet immediately – don’t wait for symptoms to show, which could take hours to emerge. For most pets, vigilant, proactive parents are the best – and most effective – prevention.

For pet parents who want to avoid an unpleasant surprise:

  • Ask your vet about skin or blood tests to look for potential insect sting allergies. You may be referred to a veterinary dermatologist.
  • If tests show your pet is allergic, desensitization can begin, which occurs much in the same way that pets and humans are desensitized to inhaled allergies, through a series of allergy shots. 
  • Desensitization may not be available in your area. Ask your vet about EpiPens® in case of emergency.

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Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash