By David F. Kramer
For thousands of years, we’ve lived our lives together with insects, so it’s no surprise that our pets can encounter them pretty much everywhere they go. While parasitic insects, like fleas and ticks, are well-known hazards, there are plenty of other bugs, like ants, that can bite our pets.
“Across the United States, bees, wasps, biting flies, ants, spiders and scorpions all pose serious risks for our pets. Allergic reactions to their venom can cause minor swelling and pain, or more serious anaphylactic reactions leading to death,” says Dr. Howard J. Small of Forest Lake Animal Clinic in Sarasota, FL.
While ants are capable of both stinging and biting dogs, they are generally more likely to sting (and are in fact related to bees, wasps and other stinging insects). Below, find out more about ant bites and stings on dogs and how to treat them.
Signs and Symptoms of Ant Bites
While a dog is vulnerable to ant and other insect bites and stings anywhere on the body, the fact that they’re on their feet and lead with their noses makes those two areas particular prime targets for bites. Bites to the snout or face can be particularly problematic, says Small, as the injury can often swell to twice its normal size and can sometimes require a visit to your vet to treat. Not every instance of an ant or other insect bite is cause for a trip to the vet, but it is always a possibility, depending upon how your dog reacts to the venom at any particular time.
According to Small, symptoms of ant bites might include lameness, hives, chewing of the feet and swelling. In the case of a more serious, anaphylactic reaction, a dog might suffer from vomiting, collapse, weakness, respiratory distress and pale gums.
“Ant bites cause localized pain and swelling, but typically do not have significant whole-body effects,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney of Los Angeles, CA. “Ants crawl on animals at the contact point between a body part and the ground, so standing pets get bitten on their feet and lounging animals can be bitten anywhere on the body having contact with the floor.”
Ant bites might appear as red and raised sores, but you might also be unable to see them on parts of a dog’s body where the fur is thickest.
In particular, fire ants are a nasty and invasive species found in the South and Southwest. “In Florida, we see a particularly more dangerous venomous insect called the fire ant,” Small says. Pain and swelling at the site of the sting are common symptoms of a fire ant bite, as are the anaphylactic reactions described above.
Fire ants are aggressive hunters, and in large numbers can even take down small animals. These ant bites on pets can be serious business, and potentially deadly. The best advice to pet owners that live in this wide swath of the United States is simply be aware of them and to stock up on treatments as first line of defense. Certainly, it’s also a good idea to have your vet speed dial.
How to Treat and Prevent Ant Bites
Checking for residual ants on your dog after he or she has been bitten, especially in hard to reach areas such as between the toes, ears, eyes and face is probably a good idea, but ants tend to bite in defense and then retreat back to their nests, says Small, so it’s likely that any ants you find there will already be dead.
“If your pet is itching or starting to swell, over-the-counter Benadryl (diphenhydramine) should be administered. This is an antihistamine and will decrease the adverse effects of the venom,” says Small. Talk to your veterinarian about specific dosing information pertaining to your dog’s weight and size.
There are also many home remedies for ant bites that can be made from commonly found ingredients. A quick, soothing salve can be made simply from baking soda and water (mix one tablespoon of baking soda and add enough water to form a spreadable paste). Small also recommends a 50-50 mix of apple cider vinegar and water, applied with a cotton ball three times a day for several days for soothing relief of ant and other insect bites.
As is the case with people, some dogs are more sensitive and can have a greater histamine response to ant and insect bites. If your dog happens to be among this unlucky group, there’s not much to do except to stock up on home remedies and take care when your dog is outside. Brachycephalic dog breeds, such pugs, English and French bulldogs, Boston terriers and Pekinese, are particularly vulnerable to ant bites as their airways can easily swell, resulting in respiratory distress. These dogs should be treated by a veterinarian if they have been bitten by an ant or other insect.
Should your dog’s symptoms lean to the more severe, contact your veterinarian for more advanced treatment.
“A trip to the vet for a more serious reaction might lead to a prescription of steroids and antibiotics. The steroids alleviate the swelling and pain response to the bite. The antibiotics are often times prescribed as many dogs develop secondary skin infections from licking,” says Small.
While commercial human insect repellents aren’t recommended for dogs, there are some natural substances that can be used if your dog is going to be spending a lot of time outside. The oil form of citronella, lemongrass and cinnamon can all be applied as an insect repellent, Small says. There are also other pet-specific insect repellents on the market, but they are certainly no guarantee that your dog won’t be bitten by ants or other insects.
Learn more about common bug bites on cats and dogs and how to treat them.