In most instances ants are considered non-threatening insects – unless someone is having a picnic! However, red fire ants can be very dangerous to dogs. Here, everything a pet owner should do in case of a red ant bite will be discussed.

A Scary Situation

Inspiration for this post came from a recent situation that happened with Holly, a Shih Tzu. During a recent summer evening spent walking along a favourite lakefront park path, an increase in the red ant population was noticed. Holly stopped for a bathroom break, and when she had finished her business, she began scooting across the grass and soil. Since Holly is white and cream in colouring, it was easy to see that a few red ants had used Holly’s potty break as an opportunity to come on board! The ants were removed from Holly, and all seemed well.

However, a couple minutes later while stopping for a drink at a water fountain, Holly went limp and could not walk on her front paw. It was clear that Holly was in distress. After closer inspection, a red ant could be seen on Holly’s paw. After the red ant was removed, Holly went into a frenzy licking her paw and making noises that indicated she was uncomfortable.

Immediately, Holly’s foot was placed in a bowl of water (empty water bowls are always kept in the cars of dog walkers!), which seemed to provide relief. However, Holly was still very anxious and licking the area. Worried about leaving Holly in the back of the car alone knowing she would continue licking the area and increasing the irritation, an empty poop bag was placed over Holly’s paw and a hair tie was used to keep it in place. This step helped to calm Holly and reduce her elevated heart rate.

Once home, a Pawz balloon booty was placed over Holly’s paw and she was given half an antihistamine tablet. After consulting with an emergency veterinarian, it was clear that Holly needed medical care as she was suffering from a mild allergic reaction.

Why are Red Ants Dangerous to Dogs?

Red ants (also called fire ants) are dangerous to dogs because they release alkaloid venom when they attack, which can cause an allergic reaction. Individual reactions vary, with some dogs experiencing mild symptoms such as paw chewing and itchy, red skin while for other dogs an ant bite can result in death. The same is also true for humans. When it comes to pets, the size of the dog is important. A large dog is less likely to be adversely affected by a single fire ant sting as a small dog, such as Holly. Dogs are especially prone to fire ant bites because of their inquisitive nature – commonly sniffing fire ant mounds in dirt and soil, as well as stepping into their territory.

What to Do When Your Dog has Been Bitten by a Red Ant

If your dog has been attacked by red ants, the first step is to calmly and quickly remove your pet from the area to prevent further infestation. Next, remove any remaining ants from your dog. Check and double check your dog that you have removed all of the ants, which will most likely be in areas with little hair such as muzzle, ears, eyes, toes, genitals, and belly. Never spray a dog being attacked by fire ants with a hose, as this method will simply make the fire ants bite down harder.

Fire Ant Bite Symptoms

All dogs will react differently to fire ant venom. General symptoms of a fire ant bite in a venom-sensitive dog include intense pain, red and itchy skin, lameness, hives, excessive chewing or licking of the affected area, and swelling. More extreme symptoms include anaphylactic response, vomiting, collapse, weakness, unusual snoring, pale gums, and difficulty breathing. Pet owners should seek immediate medical attention if any of these symptoms arise, particularly if the dog has been bitten by a large number of ants or is toy-sized.

How to Treat an Ant Bite

If symptoms of your dog’s bites are very mild – i.e. moderate itching and swelling, give your dog an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl. If your dog is having a more severe reaction, always ask a veterinarian before administering any medication to your dog.

Another at-home remedy for itchy and painful fire ant bites is a soothing salve. Mix one tablespoon of baking soda with just enough water to form a paste. Apply the salve to the affected area for itch relief. A second option is a 50/50 mix of apple cider vinegar and water. This mixture can be applied to the affected area with a cotton ball up to three times per day.

For particularly itchy and swollen areas, apply a cold compress to the area in order to relieve your pet’s discomfort.

If medical attention is required, a veterinarian will likely prescribe a steroid in order to reduce pain and swelling, as well as an antibiotic to prevent or treat secondary skin infections that can arise when the dog bites and licks the affected area.

How to Prevent Ant Bites

The way to prevent your dog from being bitten by fire ants is to have your pet avoid areas where the ants live. As Holly learned, even a quick potty break in an ant-infested area can result in a painful (and potentially dangerous) ant bite. If you have fire ants in your yard, contact a local exterminator to have their colony safely removed. A common attractant for red ants is dog food, so you should also avoid feeding your pet outdoors. Above all, supervision and a keen eye will go a long way in preventing unfortunate circumstances when it comes to ants and dogs.