UF antivenin trial saves snake-bitten critters
Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 8:47 p.m.
When Lynetta Griner of Chiefland came home from work one day last month, she opened the garage door to what looked like a murder scene.
"There was blood everywhere," she said. "I just thought maybe the two dogs had fought each other."
Both dogs — Pete and his son Boots — were bloody and swollen on their left sides.
Griner rushed the dogs to the local veterinarian, who upon looking inside the dogs' bruised mouths determined they had been bitten by a snake.
Snakebites are not uncommon in pets — especially dogs. Summertime is known as "snake season" because the intense rains force snakes out of their hiding places.
A timely trial at the University of Florida small animal hospital is testing an investigational antivenin in dogs who were bitten by snakes.
Pete and Boots were among the first beneficiaries of the trial that, so far, has treated 12 dogs.
"We are just so grateful that our vet knew about the trial because otherwise they might not have survived," Griner said. "They were prepared. They met us at the door, immediately took the dogs from us and went to work."
Pete, an 80-pound hanging tree cowdog, received 12 vials of antivenin, while Boots, half his size, received seven.
Dr. Carsten Bandt, the study's lead researcher and an assistant professor of emergency medicine and the service chief of emergency and critical care at the small animal hospital, said hospital personnel do a quick review of the dogs' cardiovascular condition, physical appearance and ability to form clots before giving them the first vial of antivenin. Dogs have to come in within six hours of getting bitten to qualify for the study.
The antivenin being studied, known by the trade name VenomVet, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but its side effects are largely unknown and are currently being studied in trials throughout the country similar to the one at UF.
The antivenin comes in liquid form, unlike one of the currently used antivenins, which comes in powder form and takes a while to mix up, said Dr. Luiz Bolfer, a third-year resident in emergency and critical care medicine at the small animal hospital.
"VenomVet is faster and ready to be used," Bolfer said.
Dogs also have traditionally been treated with a version of Crofab, the antivenin used in humans, but that has more side effects, Bandt explained. Dogs can even die from allergic reactions associated with this antivenin, Bandt added.
Neither of the currently available antivenins are cheap for pet owners, with one vial costing $300 to $350. Total care costs often run in the thousands, which often prevents owners from going through with it, Bolfer added.
Heather Stellmach was in that position when her 3-year-old dog Josey was bitten by a snake in early May. As she and her husband rushed the sick dog to the small animal hospital one late Sunday morning, "My husband said if anything cost more than $500, we would have to euthanize her," recalled Stellmach, who works in the call center at the small animal hospital and knew one vial of antivenin costs nearly $400.
"I was like, ‘We're never gonna see her again.' "
What Stellmach didn't know at the time, though, was that the trial could save her dog — for free. As soon as they got to the hospital, Bandt told her Josey qualified for the trial and the free treatments.
"She was cardiovascularly unstable, dull and unable to form a clot," Bolfer said. "Definitely a dog that would not survive without antivenin."
The hospital gave the dog five vials of antivenin before her clotting time returned to normal.
Josey has some retinal damage in her right eye, but otherwise, "she is just as playful, energetic and happy as before," said Stellmach, who last week brought Josey to the small animal hospital to hang out.
Josey's paw nails were painted orange and blue, and she enjoyed wandering around for the first day without a cone around her neck to prevent her from rubbing her eye, Stellmach explained.
Bolfer said that because of the severity of the dog's reaction, the snake was likely a diamondback. Dogs are also commonly bitten by water moccasins and, less frequently, by coral snakes, which require a special antivenin that costs $800.
Dogs bitten by coral snakes often must go on a ventilation machine, which can cost $1,000 or more, Bolfer said.
The small animal hospital typically sees about 30 dogs, and an occasional cat, with snake bites per year.
"Dogs usually get bit in the nose or the face; cats usually in the legs because they try to hit them with their paws — they are a little faster than dogs and a little smarter than dogs about it," Bandt said.
Bolfer said many of the dogs the hospital treats live on farms or ranches, or near lakes.
"Try to avoid having the dog off-leash, especially at night and in the summertime, when incidents are almost double," Bolfer cautioned dog owners, adding that dogs also should not be allowed to wander off-leash in areas thick with brush.
And if your dog looks swollen, don't wait — go to the vet, he continued, adding that many times, owners will not actually see the snake, so they have to trust their dogs' symptoms, however subtle.
"She never yelped. We never heard a rattle," Stellmach said of Josey. "She's yet to cry."
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.