Toxin Topic: Snakebites and Horses

The long hot days of summer bring an increased snakebite risk to all animals, including horses.
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Toxin Topic: Snakebites and Horses
Severe bites from more dangerous snake species or larger doses of venom can cause marked pain and swelling. | Photo: Eileen Hackett
The long hot days of summer bring an increased snakebite risk to all animals, including horses. The major venomous snakes-the pit vipers-in the United States include several species of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. Coral snakes, another poisonous snake found in the U.S., do not pose a risk to horses because of their small mouth size.

Pit vipers are so named because of the heat-detecting holes, or pits, on each side of their head that help the snake locate prey. Pit vipers can be differentiated from other snakes at a distance by their triangle-shaped heads and narrowing of the neck area just behind the head.

The major types of poisonous snakes in Kentucky are copperheads, cottonmouths, timber rattlesnakes, and pygmy rattlesnakes; there are also some reports of Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes. Risk of severe, fatal envenomation (poisoning from a venomous bite or sting) is highest with Diamondback rattlers, less with water moccasins, and lowest with copperheads.

Most snake bites to horses occur when the horse encounters a snake in the pasture or on the trail. Severe bites can occur if a horse steps on a snake and the snake releases all of its venom in one bite as it dies. Snake venom components vary tremendously by snake species, but most venoms contain substances that cause digestion and breakdown of tissues and blood vessels, impair blood clotting, and damage the heart. Some snakes’ venom also contain neurotoxins. Ultimately, many factors influence how severe a particular bite will be (i.e., snake species, size, age, recent feeding, number of bites, etc.). Some bites are “dry bites,” where little if any venom is injected

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