Jessie is a typical puppy – full of energy and curiosity. She is at the stage of life where she is learning all the time, and last week, she had a lesson that she won’t forget for a long time.
It was mid-afternoon on a sunny day. Jessie was relaxing in the back garden by herself, enjoying lying in the sunshine. Her ears pricked up when she heard a buzzing noise, and when she found the source of the buzz, she became even more interested. It was a small black and yellow object hovering in the air in front of her. Jessie had never seen a bee before, and in her innocence, it looked like a wonderful new toy.
As she watched, the bee flew to the ground, landing on the patio just in front of her, continuing to buzz. Jessie patted it with one of her front paws, and it buzzed even louder. The dog started to jump around the buzzing bee, barking at it, and batting it with her feet. The bee crawled around in front of her.
Jessie was enjoying this new game, and she became more and more excited. She became bolder, and having learned that no harm came to her when she touched the bee with her front feet, she decided to go a stage further. She grabbed the tiny bee with her mouth, as if it was a ball or one of her toys. It was at this moment that she learned the important lesson about small black and yellow flying insects: the bee stung her on the inside of her upper lip.
She yelped in pain, and dropped the dying insect onto the ground, backing away from it. Poor Jessie could not understand what had just happened, but her upper lip was now sore, and she was not a happy pup. She slunk over to her favourite spot on the patio, and lay down again. She had had enough playing for the afternoon.
Fintan’s daughter had heard Jessie yelp from upstairs, but when she looked out of the window, she couldn’t see anything wrong with the dog. It was only when Fintan came back himself, half an hour later, that the consequences of the bee sting were obvious.
Jessie seemed much quieter than normal, and the right-hand side of her upper lip was swollen, as if it had been pumped up like a balloon. At first Fintan thought that she might have just bumped her mouth while playing with a toy, and perhaps the swelling would soon begin to go down. But as he watched her, the swelling seemed to be spreading. Soon her entire muzzle was puffed up, so that she was beginning to look like some type of bloodhound. The swelling seemed to be extending backwards, with her cheeks beginning to look different. Fintan made a decision: it was time to take Jessie to the vet.
A short while later, Jessie was on my consulting table, and I was carefully examining her mouth. The swelling was a typical allergic reaction to an insect bite, and when I examined the inside of her upper lip, I found the telltale tiny red pinprick mark. She had definitely been stung by a bee.
Allergic reactions are unpredictable. Sometimes the swelling comes up quickly, then vanishes equally quickly. On other occasions, the swelling continues to spread, eventually involving other parts of the body. The worry is that the swelling may spread to include the area of the throat. If Jessie’s breathing passages began to be obstructed by the swelling, the situation could become very complicated. In the past, I have had to carry out an emergency tracheostomy on an animal with swelling around the larynx, caused by a severe infection. I have never seen a situation deteriorate to this extent following a bee sting, but it is not a risk that I’d like to take.
The simple antidote to this type of allergic reaction is a rapid-acting injection of steroids. Jessie did not seem to notice as I gave her the injection. Her swollen muzzle must have been quite uncomfortable, and she was having a traumatic afternoon. The small needle from the vet was relatively minor in comparison with the other consequences of that buzzing insect.
The drug acted rapidly, and within a few hours, Jessie’s face had returned to normal. Fintan wondered if there was any other action he could have taken. I explained that if the incident is seen at the time, it can be worth using first aid measures to lessen the impact of a sting. It is important to discover whether a bee or a wasp has done the damage. Bee stings are acidic, and so the area needs to be bathed with a solution of bicarbonate of soda, to neutralize the acidity. Wasp stings, on the other hand, are alkali, and so they should be bathed in vinegar, which is a weak acidic solution. This treatment should ease any discomfort, but even then, the swelling can still occur.
There is one piece of good news: Jessie has learned an important lesson about buzzing yellow and black insects, and she is very unlikely to play with bees or wasps in the future.
It is common for young pets to be stung by bees and wasps at this time of year
If a sting is seen to happen, first aid can sometimes help
If a pet’s face begins to swell, urgent veterinary care is needed