By David F. Kramer
While parasites, like fleas and ticks, are well-known hazards, there are plenty of other bugs that can bite and sting 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 swelling and pain, or more serious anaphylactic reactions leading to death,” says Dr. Howard J. Small of Forest Lake Animal Clinic in Sarasota, Florida.
Depending on the species, ants are capable of stinging or biting (or both), and the results can range from annoying to potential life threatening. Below, find out more about ant bites and stings on dogs and how to treat them.
Signs and Symptoms of Ant Bites
While dogs are vulnerable to ant bites and stings anywhere on the body, the fact that they’re on their feet and lead with their noses makes those two areas prime targets. Injuries to the snout or face can be particularly problematic, says Small, because excessive swelling in this area is more likely to lead to problems breathing. Not every ant bite or sting is cause for a trip to the vet, but it is always a possibility, depending upon how your dog reacts to the venom.
According to Small, symptoms of ant bites and stings might include lameness (if the injury is to the feet), hives, chewing or licking at the affected area, and swelling. In the case of a more serious, anaphylactic reaction, a dog might suffer from vomiting, collapse, weakness, respiratory distress, and pale gums.
“Most ant bites cause localized pain and swelling, but typically do not have significant whole-body effects,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney of Los Angeles, California. “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 ground.” Ant bites can appear as red and raised sores, but you might be unable to see them on parts of a dog’s body where the fur is thickest.
Of particular concern, however, are fire ants – a nasty and invasive species found in the South and Southwest. According to Small, fire ants are “particularly dangerous” venomous insects. Intense pain and swelling at the site of the sting are common symptoms of a fire ant bite, as are the anaphylactic reactions described above. Large numbers of fire ants often attack as a group leading to numerous stings that can take down small animals. These types of injuries can be potentially deadly for pets.
How to Treat and Prevent Ant Bites
Checking for more 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 most species of ants tend to bite in defense and then retreat back to their nests, says Small. However, if you’re dealing with fire ants they will be more aggressive. Get your dog out of the area, put on a pair of gloves to protect yourself, and then brush or pick any remaining fire ants off your dog.
Monitor your dog’s overall well-being. If you are seeing any signs of an anaphylactic reaction (vomiting, collapse, weakness, respiratory distress and pale gums), immediately take your dog to the nearest veterinary clinic.
Next, take a look at your dog’s skin. “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 to determine if this medication is appropriate for your pet and about specific dosing information.
Simple ant bites that don’t trigger a systemic reaction can often be treated at home. A quick, soothing salve can be made 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 response to ant bites and stings. Should your dog’s symptoms become worrisome, contact your veterinarian for advice and 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 oftentimes 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, but first talk to your veterinarian to see if these are a good fit for your dog. There are also other pet-specific insect repellents on the market, but they certainly don’t guarantee that your dog won’t be bitten or stung. In the end, your best option is to keep an eye on your dogs when they are outside, steer them away from locations that are obviously infested with ants, and act quickly if you notice a problem.
Learn more about common bug bites on cats and dogs and how to treat them.