At Animal Medical and Surgical Hospital, we often see significantly ill pets. We also sometimes have the opportunity to save lives, which is a responsibility we do not take lightly. Bringing a pet back to life from the brink of death is a rare, and humbling, experience. We recently had a patient who was fortunate enough to have that exact experience, and we were grateful that we were on hand to administer life-saving treatment. 

The dog who appeared to be dead

A woman rushed into Animal Medical and Surgical Hospital carrying her dog’s limp body. She thrust her beloved pet into our client service representative’s arms, but she was sobbing so uncontrollably that she could not convey the tragedy that had obviously befallen her dog. Our veterinary team recognized the emergency situation, and yelled “emergency!” to alert every hospital team member that their immediate help was needed. Dr. McSweeny dropped his lunch, and ran into the lobby to examine the patient. 

He quickly realized that the situation was not good, because the dog was not breathing, and had no heartbeat. He assessed that the dog was dead, but wanted to give him the best chance of survival, so he rushed him into the treatment area to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). As he placed a breathing tube, administered epinephrine, and started chest compressions, Dr. McSweeney asked the owner what had happened to her dog. Unfortunately, she was still unable to calm herself down enough to tell the team why her dog was unresponsive. 

One dog’s fortunate coincidence

As Dr. McSweeney ran through the possible scenarios (e.g., hit by car, cardiac disease, toxicity), he remembered a conversation with a fellow veterinarian the day before. This veterinarian was walking through a park with her daughter and her daughter’s dog, when the dog walked through a red ant hill. They carefully wiped all the ants they could see from the dog’s feet and legs, and continued walking, but in five minutes, the dog collapsed and became unconscious, because of red ant bite anaphylaxis (i.e., severe allergic reaction). The veterinarian knew the dog would not survive the 15-mile drive to her own hospital, so she raced to the nearest emergency hospital, calling them on the way so they could prepare the correct treatments. The dog survived only because treatment was administered so quickly. 

Dr. McSweeney quickly asked the woman if her dog had been bitten by red ants, and she said he had, and that she also had been bitten. With a diagnosis, Dr. McSweeney knew that quick action was the only way to save the dog’s life, so the team immediately put into motion the established protocol for treating anaphylactic patients. After 30 minutes of tireless effort, the dog had a heartbeat and was breathing on his own, and after an hour, he was standing and wagging his tail, happy to be alive, oblivious that he had narrowly escaped danger. 

Red ant bites and anaphylaxis in dogs

Imported red ants (i.e., fire ants), which thrive in the hot, humid Southeastern U.S. climate, are found throughout Louisiana, and pose a significant risk to pets who are bitten. The ants live in underground colonies, tunneling through soil beneath the surface, forming characteristic mounds typically found in open, sunny areas, such as parks, playgrounds, lawns, and golf courses. Dogs who accidentally step on a mound, or put their muzzle to the ground to investigate, will likely be attacked, because red ants are aggressive, and do not retreat underground to avoid conflict, like many ant types. Red ants grasp their victim with their powerful jaws, and can sting repeatedly with the stinger attached to their abdomen. 

Most people and animals develop a red, painful or itchy bump at the bite location that often develops into a pustule. Some pets, however, are sensitive to red ant venom and can suffer an anaphylactic reaction, with signs that may include:

  • Hives or swelling
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse
  • Death 

Pets can develop an anaphylactic reaction after only a few bites, but those who suffer many ant bites are at higher risk. 

Preventing red ants from biting your pet

To prevent an emergency in your pet, follow these tips:

  • Avoid red ant mounds —  Keep an eye out for mounds when walking your dog, and stay far away. Be aware that red ants access the mounds through tunnels that open up far from the mound itself, but the mound will contain the most concentrated ant population, and poses the largest threat to pets.
  • Keep your dog leashed — Never let your pet roam freely, as she could encounter an ant mound, and be stung when you are not nearby to recognize reaction signs and seek treatment.
  • Check your yard — Scan your yard before letting your pet outside, as ant mounds can pop up at any time.
  • Brush off ants quickly — If you see ants on your pet, use a towel or piece of clothing to brush them away, and watch her closely for reaction signs.

Although your pet likely won’t have an anaphylactic reaction if she is bitten by red ants, be prepared for the worst. Keep our contact information on hand, and call us if you think your pet may be experiencing red ant anaphylaxis.