As the UK’s only venomous snake, adders probably have a bit of an unfair reputation, particularly with pet owners due to recent press coverage on how adder bites can be dangerous to dogs.
But just how true are the newspaper stories, and would an adder bite kill a dog? And if so, how many dogs each year do die from adder bites in the UK?
To find out, I decided to crunch the numbers and give you a statistical report so you can make your mind up based on data. Here’s what I discovered.
Will an adder bite kill a dog?
Each year dog walkers take millions of walks into the common habitats of adders, yet very few bites occur. Whilst detailed statistics are not compiled, as many bites will often go unreported, my research would suggest that very few dogs die from adder bites each year.
Yes, an adder bite will kill a dog, but only in very rare circumstances. To put this into perspective, in 2015 there were 101 adder bites reported on dogs according to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service, an organisation who collate data.
Of those 101 bite reports, 5 of the dogs died. That gives a dog adder bite fatality rate of 4.9%.
But we need to take these numbers with a large pinch of salt, as the percentage of dogs that die from adder bites is almost guaranteed to be far, far lower.
The reason I say that is because of how dog adder bites are reported.
For example, I live in the New Forest, and we tend to see one or two adders a year. You can actually see a photo below of one we saw when walking our dog.
I personally know of two pet owners with dogs who have suffered adder bites. Neither of these people took their dogs to the vet, as the bites were not serious and were treated with an antihistamine.
Those bites will not be recorded on the national UK data, and I am sure that many vets who treat adder bites in dogs, also don’t report their numbers into the Veterinary Poisons Information Service. The reporting system appears to be voluntary when I read what’s on their website:
“Have you seen an interesting poisoning case in your vet practice that you have not contacted us about? We have an online questionnaire you can use to share this information. We will then add the details to our case database. The information will help us with toxicovigilance and may provide information that can aid in future cases.”
The reported instances of adder bites in dogs, and dogs that were killed were evidently the most serious cases, including those in the national press.
Based on this hunch and anecdotal evidence, I assume that whilst an adder bite can kill a dog and there are reports in the press each year, the bite to death ratio is probably far lower than 4.9%.
Handy Hint: If your dog has the upper hand and eats the adder, there is a small chance of your dog getting sick.
Reports of dogs being killed by adders
Below are links to reports of how an adder bite would kill a dog, with examples from around the UK from 2011 to 2020.
- 2011: King Charles Spaniel killed by adder bite in Canvey Island, Essex
- 2013: Bearded Collie killed by adder bite in Bolton, Greater Manchester
- 2014: Labrador killed by adder bite in Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire
- 2015: Whippet killed by adder bite in Stirling, Scotland
- 2018: Labrador killed by adder bite in Anglesey, North Wales
- 2018: Jack Russell killed by adder bite on a Devon beach
- 2019: German Shepherd killed by adder bite in Kirkintilloch, Scotland
- 2020: Dog killed by adder bite near Basingstoke, Hampshire
How dogs survive an adder bite
The majority of dogs will survive an adder bite, with the average recovery time said to be 5 days. Recovery from an adder bite can be as quick as 24 hours, or as long as a month.
According to various vet websites I’ve read, 97% of dogs will show symptoms after being bitten. The remaining 3% will have received a dry bite, with no venom or possibly no breaking of the skin.
Under 5% of dogs bitten by adders are said to display serious symptoms. This can include breathing problems, kidney or liver failure, collapsing, and serious bleeding. When symptoms are this serious, dogs can die from adder bites.
Factors that influence the survival rate
Whether the dog survives the adder bite will depend on a range of factors including:
- The age and size of the dog: Smaller and older dogs are more at risk and have lower survival rates. Smaller dog breeds have a higher body size to venom ratio so cannot absorb as much of the adder bite venom as larger breeds could.
- The location of the bite: Dogs are more likely to survive adder bites when they are bitten on the leg or face. Blood supply to these areas will be slower, whereas a bite to the dog’s tongue has a higher rate of fatality.
- The strength and volume of venom: Whether a dog lives from an adder bite will also depend on how much venom was injected. If the adder hasn’t bitten something in a while, the venom will be stronger and administered in more volume if it’s been saved up for a period of time. Some studies also suggest that adder venom is stronger earlier in the season.
- How long it takes to get treatment: The sooner you get medical help the better your dog’s change of survival will be. Ideally you need to get the dog to a vet inside of 30 minutes for the best prognosis.
- How active your dog has been since the bite: Your dog has a better chance of surviving an adder bite if he’s kept still and calm after the strike. This will slow down his blood flow around the body, meaning the toxins won’t reach the essential organs as quickly.
How to avoid your dog encountering an adder
To help protect your own dog from becoming an adder bite statistic, it’s important to understand how adders live, so you can avoid meeting one. Here are some facts which will help you and your dog keep clear of this snake.
- Adders are more active from March to October.
- Adder bites in dogs are more frequent from April to July when 70% of bites occur.
- Adders like to live in woodland, heathland, coastal and moorland habitats.
- Adders will bask in the sun on open paths, rocks, or logs.
- Adders will only attack if trodden, picked up, or threatened.
- Adders are found all over the UK apart from the Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.
If you do see an adder near your dog and are worried, please don’t harm it. Your dog will more likely than not, survive an adder bite, so give the snake a wide berth and let him retreat into some bushes.
Adders are a protected species in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and are at risk of vanishing from our countryside. According to research by Reading University, unless we take steps to protect them, they could disappear completely in 20 years’ time.
How to tell if your dog has been bitten
As adder bites are dangerous to dogs in some cases, it’s important to recognise the signs your dog has been bitten. If he has, you should contact a vet immediately. Most dogs will be fine, but you should exercise caution in case of a bad reaction to the venom.
Most dog owners won’t see the adder bite the dog, as this snake will quickly escape a frightening situation, but the signs can be any of the following:
- You will hear a loud yelp from your dog and a sudden frantic movement.
- You might see two small puncture wounds followed by a rapid swelling and red skin discolouration.
- Your dog’s behaviour will change, to be skittish and nervous.
- In more serious cases (which are very rare), your dog could drool, vomit, and become lethargic. In extreme cases where a dog can die from an adder bite, it might be followed by panting, and collapse.
Handy Hint: To find out more about the symptoms of an adder bite in dogs, read this more comprehensive guide.
Dogs do die from adder bites, but the chances of survival are much higher, with deaths being rare.
If your dog gets bitten, please seek veterinary help as soon as it happens, as this will drastically reduce the chance of your dog being killed by the bite.
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I am fascinated by how dogs and snakes interact, and have written other articles on similar topics, which you can read below.