The owner of this 14 year-old Arabian gelding requested an emergency exam and treatment by Equine Medical Service for what seemed acute snake bite to the nose. The owner noticed the gelding standing at the gate when she returned home from work and found the horse's face almost entirely swollen.
Upon arrival, the attending veterinarian started treatment to help negate the toxic affects of the rattlesnake venom and prevent any further damage to the tissue invaded by the toxin. Treatment included non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, antibiotics, DMSO, and tetanus prophylaxis. The anti-inflammatory drugs helped to stem any further damage to the soft tissue, while providing pain relief. Antibiotics are always essential to prevent a secondary bacterial infection caused by the rattlesnake's very contaminated fangs and from the dying soft tissue that provide an excellent bacterial growth media. Another treatment that may be needed is emergency airway intervention. This may be as simple as placing small lengths of garden hose in the nostrils so the swelling does not cut off their breathing (if you consider inserting and suturing tubes in painful and swollen nostrils to be simple), to performing a tracheotomy and placing a tube for breathing.
This gelding responded very well to initial treatments and required no respiratory assistance and within two days of treatment was close to 100% normal.
Horses are most commonly bitten by poisonous snakes, such as rattlesnakes, copperheads and coral snakes, in the spring and summer months. Horses at pasture are often bitten on the nose and head. Bites to the head and nose are true medical emergencies. These may cause swelling of the nose and surrounding tissue, making it difficult for the horse to breathe. Bites to the legs are less common and less serious, and usually occur during rides through snake-infested areas. In addition to swelling, the venom causes tissue destruction and blood clotting problems.
For further information on snake bites refer to our newsletter article "Rattlesnake Bites-It's the season to beware."