Be Prepared for Bee Stings

Your dog may not realize that fuzzy bees and wiggly wasps are a danger until it's too late.

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dog chasing bees cartoon

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Late one summer, my sister and I were walking our dogs along a groomed trail in a state park. It was the same path we had taken the day before on our vacation camping trip, but it was such a relaxing, warm afternoon that we thought we’d enjoy it again. We had stopped to take in the scenery and watch her Labrador play in the water. My Papillon was eagerly exploring whatever was within the reach of his leash. Then, without warning, my Pap began leaping up in the air and shrieking. It was horrifying! I reached for him as he continued to jump, screeching and clearly terrified. I thought he was having a neurologic fit.

My sister came running over, dog in tow. As quickly as she got to me and my dog, her Lab starting doing the same thing! Finally it clicked – “Bees!” We ran as fast as possible, my Pap in my arms, her dog running beside her and the bees in pursuit.

We ran as fast as we could as far as possible, but the bees continued the chase. We took off again, struggling to breathe, eventually crossing a bridge over the lake. That did the trick, and the bees stopped coming.

As we stood there, gasping for air and trembling, my sister – a veterinarian – insisted we go into the lake and let the water cover the dogs as deeply as possible. She wanted to drown any bees hiding in the dogs’ coats. She said it is common for bees to stay in a dog’s coat after an attack (especially a long-haired dog), explaining she’s seen bees flying around the exam room when a dog was brought to her clinic for stings.

When we returned to our tent, her Labrador was trembling and refused to go into his open, airy exercise pen. Instead, he forced his way into my Papillon’s tiny crate, which had a mesh covering over it. The sides bulged out as the dog curled up as tightly as possible. He was clearly traumatized and refused to come out, apparently seeking what he considered a safe environment. My sister left to find some Benadryl to give to the dogs, and I stayed and tried to comfort them.

Though both dogs had experienced a number of stings, after the Benadryl that my sister procured had been administered, they recovered quickly from the physical effects of the bees’ attack. The emotional fallout was much longer lasting. My sister’s Lab had a meltdown a few weeks later at an agility trial due to noticeable but harmless bee activity near the practice jump. It took until the following spring before our dogs no longer became upset when they encountered a bee.

Interestingly, neither my sister nor I realized we, too, had been stung until the next day, when she found five stings, and I found three. Immediately after the incident, we were more concerned about our dogs!

dog and stuffed bee toy

When Bees Attack Dogs

Unless your dog has previously been stung, he may not be aware of the danger surrounding bees or wasps.

If you find or suspect a nest, leave immediately, especially if you are with your dog. When you do, be sure you:

– Avoid loud noises, such as shouting.
– Do not disturb the nest or get too close to it.
– Take warning if a few bees or wasps come out and initially dive-bomb you; that means leave immediately.
– Don’t swat at the insects or attempt to kill them (you will just aggravate them).
– Run if the bees or wasps come after you or your dog. There is no other solution. Make your dog run with you or pick him up and carry him. Yes, you can usually outrun most of these flying insects, but you may find they are determined and you will have to run again.
– Protect your face. If your dog is in your arms, cuddle him as you run.
– Run into the wind, if possible, as it will inhibit the insects’ flight.
– Skip hiding in the water until it’s over, as swarms may hover over the surface, waiting for you.
– Do not stop running until you are certain the bees or wasps have retreated.

domesticated honey bees

Signs a Bee Stung Your Dog

If you are with the dog when a bee attack occurs, you may see him leap up and cry out, as we did. He may also run around in circles, rub at his mouth or eyes, scratch or bite at the site, or just hold his paw up.

If you didn’t see him get stung, you may notice swelling or see him scratching or chewing at the sting site. The site will be painful to the touch. If you know or suspect your dog has multiple stings, you should seriously consider a trip to the veterinarian.

Bees and wasps usually sting in the least-hairy spots on a dog, like the underbelly or around the nose, but dogs can also be stung in hairier areas. If your dog was stung because he was snapping at a bee or wasp, you may find the sting in the ear area, eyes, or even in the dog’s mouth. If he was digging, he probably got stung around his paws.

The severity of the situation depends partially on the degree of swelling and whether he has any reactions that might indicate anaphylactic shock, meaning he is allergic to bee stings. That is a life-threatening emergency.

When severe, these symptoms will most likely appear almost immediately, at least within the first five minutes. “Figure 30 minutes at the most,” advises Dr. Deb M. Eldredge, a veterinarian, dog breeder, and award-winning veterinary author in Vernon, New York.

Signs of a more serious reaction include:

– Excessive salivation/drooling
– Vomiting
– Diarrhea
– Difficulty breathing
– Trembling
– Collapse/fainting (bee-sting reactions can sometimes mimic seizures)
– Pale gums
– Hives
– Mental change, such as unresponsiveness, confusion, or abnormal behavior, such as our Lab retreating into the tiny crate

In these cases, you should seek immediate veterinary care. Your vet may give your dog Benadryl (diphenhydramine HCI) and/or dexamethasone, which is a strong anti-inflammatory drug. Dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid that is only given with extreme caution. Serious sting reactions can require the administration of fluids and possible overnight veterinary care.

If you learn your dog is allergic to bee or wasp stings, it may be wise to carry an EpiPen with you. An EpiPen contains injectable epinephrine to counteract anaphylactic shock. The advisability of this for your dog and the exact dosage must be determined by your own veterinarian.

Be aware that your dog might be fine with a single sting but may go into shock when stung more than once due to the amount of venom released. In most cases, you’ll see some mild swelling and pain, which can be treated with routine first-aid to relieve his symptoms:

Check the area for a stinger; if you find it, scrape the stinger off. “A credit card is good for this,” says Dr. Eldredge. “Don’t use tweezers. Pulling the stinger out with tweezers could actually squeeze more venom into your pet.”

Use a cold pack to help soothe the swelling and reduce inflammation or apply a baking-soda poultice, which is made by adding enough water to the baking soda to create a paste. In a pinch, even a cold-water wash cloth can be soothing. Hold the cold pack on the area for 20 minutes at a time.

Monitor the dog continually for swelling, as severe swelling in the head/neck area can be dangerous. You may see small, localized swelling at the sting site with redness and pain.

Symptoms may remain for several days, but if they worsen, take your dog to the vet.

Your dog may have difficulty eating his regular diet if he was stung in the mouth. Offer ice water and wet food, if possible.

If your veterinarian agrees, it’s usually okay to administer Benadryl as a precaution. The normal dosage for dogs is 1 mg per pound of dog body weight every eight hours. A Benadryl tablet contains 25 mg of medicine, so a small dog, weighing around eight pounds, would receive about one-third of a tablet. But talk with your own veterinarian for advice in advance, especially for very small and very large dogs.

“Generally, dogs more than 50 pounds should be given two Benadryl tablets,” says Dr. Eldredge. “I don’t usually go as high as three tablets.” Dr. Eldredge avoids liquid Benadryl as it has some alcohol in it.

Bee Sting Bottom Line

We learned a lesson: Always be on the lookout for insect activity anytime you are outside. We learned that a nest can be formed within a few hours. And bees seem to be more frantic as the season wanes.

Of course, no sane person purposely disturbs a nest and, fortunately, most bees and wasps do not attack without being provoked (Africanized honey bees, however, may attack with little to no reason). Remember, though, your fearless canine pal – like my little dog – may not be aware that these fascinating bees and wasps must be left alone.

Some perfumes (including those in your or your dog’s shampoo!) can attract bees or wasps. We’ve also learned that shiny jewelry and dark clothing are attractive to the insects. (The dark color may be why my sister’s black Lab was stung more than my white Papillon.) Your picnic food will also draw their attention. If your dog is one of those odd souls who likes to chase or bite at bees, you may want to forego planting flowers or flowering shrubs in the parts of your yard that your dog has access to.

And pay attention! I know that no matter how amusing my sister’s Lab is playing in the water, I will keep one eye on my dog, too, with Benadryl in just the right dosage for my dog’s weight handy in my pocket.

A freelance writer who lives in New York state, Cynthia Foley is an experienced dog agility competitor.

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