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Insect Stings: When to Get Vet Care

It’s been a tough summer for dogs coming into contact with bees, and it’s only August.

Two recent incidents in California remind us that being able to recognize the signs of possible anaphylactic shock can make the difference between life and death for dogs stung by insects.

The vast majority of dogs that are stung by bees, wasps or ants don’t have a serious reaction to the toxins the insects inject when they bite. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

A 13-year-old Siberian Husky mix died in July after being stung by a bee, then going into anaphylactic shock, according to the Los Angeles Times blog, “L.A. Now.” In Ventura County, numerous dogs were stung in June when suspected Africanized honeybees, often called “killer bees,” swarmed the boarding kennel where they were staying, reported vcstar.com, the Ventura County Star newspaper’s website. Several employees and 12 dogs were stung, two of them requiring treatment.

Although no one knows what percentage of dogs will react to insect stings, Meredith Thoen, D.V.M., ACVECC, who oversees emergency care for the Midwest Veterinary Referral Center in St. Louis, says the odds of a pet dying after a sting are “really quite low.” A dog may yelp when it’s stung, have a welt and scratch the bite, but is unlikely to have a life-threatening reaction.

When a dog does react, however, immediate veterinary care is almost always needed.

A little facial swelling from a sting calls for a veterinary phone consultation. Anything more requires an immediate trip to the clinic. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

Making it a bit easier on dog owners is the fact that anaphylactic shock, called “anaphylaxis” in the veterinary world, is treated the same, regardless of whether the toxin comes from a bee, wasp, ant or spider, Thoen (pronounced “thoon”) says. “It’s probably of minimal importance. If you did see the insect bite them, that’s good information. Generally, the cascade of events after they’re stung or bit is going to be the same.” However, spider bites can be “a little more serious,” though not from an anaphylaxis perspective. If you can identify or capture the spider safely, that “might be a good idea,” she says.Flying insects, such as bees and wasps, aren’t the only ones that can induce anaphylactic shock, a response to toxin that can affect the entire body, including the respiratory system and other organs. Ant bites can have the same effect, as can spider bites, which bring their own unique, medical issues, depending on the type of spider.

Most stings are “on the face and extremities because of what dogs do,” Thoen says, but they can be stung anywhere. As they walk on grass or nose around in things, they often disturb both flying and walking insects, resulting in bites.

With prompt treatment, most dogs survive the anaphylactic shock that can result from a wasp’s sting. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

You can soothe the pain of the sting, which is not insignificant, Thoen says, by removing the stinger if left behind by a bee, then making a paste of baking soda and water, and putting it on the bite. An ice pack can relieve any swelling, as well as pain. If the dog wants to scratch the spot, calamine lotion will help with itching.

“People a lot of times want to give some kind of over-the-counter medications,” Thoen says. “I don’t recommend that.” Most such medications, such as Benadryl or other antihistamines, have different dosages for dogs than they would for a human. In addition, she advises never to “administer any sort of over-the-counter pain medication” to a dog without consulting a veterinarian. Many human pain medications are toxic to dogs.

If the dog has no further reaction, there’s no need to worry.

“In most cases, if something bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen really quickly,” Thoen says. “The more delayed the response, the less the response should be.”

However, even a bit of facial swelling warrants a call to the vet to see if a clinic visit is needed. “Better safe than sorry,” she says.

In the unusual case that the dog starts having trouble breathing, vomits, has diarrhea or collapses, take it immediately to your veterinarian or a 24-hour emergency clinic.

Signs that a dog is reacting to a sting include agitation; drooling; vomiting or diarrhea; facial swelling, which usually starts near the eyes, lips and nose; hives, often first visible on the belly; breathing issues, including breathing heavily; and seizures. A spider bite can cause intense excitability, fever and weakness. Thoen points out that spider bites often look more like a wound as tissue dies around the bite. Some signs can be delayed after a spider bite, such as joint paint, and secondary infections can be introduced via the wound, causing more trouble.

If your dog has any of these reactions, get it to the vet immediately. Depending on the distance to an available clinic, you should call ahead to inform the staff of the situation and to ask if you should give anything to the dog on the way. Unfortunately, most dogs that don’t survive anaphylaxis are “dying in the car on the way,” Thoen says.

Fortunately, “The vast majority of patients do very well with supportive care,” she says. So, once you see that your dog is being affected by the toxin, don’t delay in getting him veterinary care.

At the veterinary office or emergency hospital, your dog will get an IV catheter and an injection of a combination of steroids and Benadryl, Thoen says. In “very severe” cases, epinephrine may be added to counteract the effects of the insect’s toxin by stabilizing the dog’s blood pressure and heart rate.

In mild cases, dogs will go home the same day. A severe case might require up to two days of hospitalization.

The dog may need a “short course” of Benadryl and steroids after the crisis, again depending on how severe the reaction was, Thoen says. Either way, once recovered, the dog won’t have any long-term damage from the incident “unless there’s some sort of organ failure. But that would be quite rare.”

If a dog is stung multiple times, the reaction may be more severe. Each bite releases toxin into the dog’s body, which can result in a “larger, quicker inflammatory response. Usually most dogs are stung once or twice,” she says. “Fortunately we rarely have to deal with that.”

Thoen says both small and large dogs can react to stings, but some breeds seem to be more sensitive. “The majority of allergic reactions we see are in brachycephalic breeds. We don’t necessarily know why.” While some reaction can be “hypersensitivity” or an allergy, most of it is “just the toxin in the bug,” she says.

Dogs that have had more than one reaction to a sting might be safer with an EpiPen, a dose of medication that can be kept handy. It’s something you can discuss with your dog’s veterinarian. However, “I don’t think, after a one-time episode, it’s something that would commonly be prescribed,” Thoen says.

“The take home is that some dogs can be treated at home and others can’t, and your vet is the best person to help you with that.”

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.

1 Comments to “Insect Stings: When to Get Vet Care”

  1. Dan Sayers Dan Sayers says:

    Thanks for the observations about spider bites, Susan!

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