All About Pets: Snakebites, a dog owner’s nightmare

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It has been a long hot summer this year. Even if you are fluent in Parseltongue, the special snake language famous in the Harry Potter books, your dog could still be victim to snakebites. Your dog’s terrific nose can lead him into some serious trouble.

The U.S. has 15 species of rattlesnakes, two kinds of water moccasins, and two kinds of coral snakes. All of them are poisonous, and any bite to a dog can be fatal.

Animal clinics report more than 150,000 emergency treatments to dogs and cats each year, with dogs the most likely domestic pet to be bitten by venomous snakes. Hunting type breeds, in particular, are at a higher risk of snakebite because their noses get them into trouble before the owner realizes their dog has locked onto a snake.

Most snakebites are from pit vipers, venomous snakes easily identified by a triangular shaped head, retractable fangs and a special heat-sensing pit between the eyes and nostril (to tell them something is close and threatening). Generally, water moccasins and copperheads are found in the eastern U.S. and southward through Texas. At least we don’t have to worry about them. Rattlesnakes are found throughout the contiguous U.S. with the highest concentration in the south and southwest. I personally have seen more this summer than in previous years.

Imagine walking your dog in an open field or grassy area (thinking of the hills out the north gate) and abruptly your dog’s attention is diverted. Maybe it is a clump of grass, a pile or rocks, or even the shade from a bush. Suddenly, your dog yelps and has rapid swelling on his legs or face accompanied by intense pain. You see a puncture site. Your dog begins drooling, breathing rapidly and his pupils become dilated. You may not even see a snake, but if you see these signs you should take your dog to the nearest veterinarian for this life-threatening emergency. This is not something to self-treat. Aspirin, which is usually safe for dogs, is not safe in this particular situation. In the case of a snakebite, aspirin can cause dangerous thinning of the blood. Some veterinary sources recommend placing a tourniquet two inches above the site of the bite while other veterinary sources say this isn’t necessary. This is something you may want to discuss with your veterinarian before this situation occurs. The main point is, get your dog to emergency care as soon as possible.

Veterinarians report that one percent of snakebites occur to the head and neck, 25 percent are “dry” or have no venom and bites to the dog’s trunk have a much poorer prognosis. Dogs bitten by a rattlesnake and treated with antivenin, intravenous fluids, and antibiotics have a less than one percent mortality. The shorter the time between the bite and treatment, the lower the risk of the dog’s demise.

Your dog will be kept quiet to reduce movement, the fur around the bite area will be shaved, and the bite area cleaned. The veterinarian will put a needle into a vein and start giving fluids to prevent blood pressure from dropping. Your dog will receive intravenous antibiotics as a hedge against secondary infections from bacteria in the snake’s mouth. Bloodwork will be drawn to check for blood clotting factors and organ damage. Antivenin will be given and is most effective when given within four hours of the snakebite. Your dog will usually remain at the hospital for 12 to 72 hours for observation and fluid management. As you can imagine, it’s a costly treatment. There is a reason, however, that the dog must remain in the hospital. Envenomation is why the dog must be observed.

There is no way to discern whether the snake had a “full tank” of venom when it bit your dog. Some bites are dry bites, that is venom-less. Envenomation of the bite is related to the time of the year, the volume of venom present in the snake (it could have bitten something just prior to your dog), the number of times it struck your dog, the amount of victim movement immediately following the bite, and the age of the snake. Juvenile snakes have no discretion when they bite; they pump out their entire venom sack. Older snakes are fickle when it comes to their venom. There are so many variables and unknowns with snakebites that immediate veterinary care is imperative.

Veterinary care following a snakebite is expensive. Add in the cost of intravenous fluids, antibiotics, steroids, and 72 hours of observation time and you are easily looking anywhere between $5,000 to $7,000.

There are options for preventing or reducing the impact of snakebites. The pharmaceutical option is a rattlesnake vaccine. It works by stimulating the dog’s immunity to defend against the venom. The manufacturer, Red Rock, claims dogs have less permanent injury as a result of a snakebite. The vaccine was developed to protect against the venom of the western diamondback rattlesnake (most common to us) and does not provide protection against the coral snake, water moccasin, or Mojave Desert rattlesnake bites.

According to Red Rock’s website, dogs must be vaccinated at least 30 days prior to any potential exposure and should get a booster every six months thereafter. The average cost is $24-$40. However, even with the vaccination, the dog still needs emergency treatment following a snakebite, though they may require less antivenin.

Since we live in an area where it is pretty common to see rattlesnakes, snake-proofing your home environment is recommended. One can do so by eliminating wood, rock, or brush piles as these invite rodents which are a food source for snakes, covering all holes and crawl space accesses, keeping lawns short and garden beds away from the house, avoiding compost piles, keeping hedges and trees pruned, removing junk piles and eliminating food sources that attract rodents, such as dog and cat food that Is left out.

Snake activity increases March through December. Generally, rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation in March or April. Often here because of our temperatures, snakes do not hibernate but enter brumation (light hibernation). During hot summer when temperatures are 105 to 110 degrees, snakes are active mostly at night when you are apt to be taking out the trash or taking your dog out for a walk once the temperatures have cooled. In autumn months, temperatures drop and snakes are even more active, especially during the day.

I have learned several things since researching rattlesnakes. First- I don’t like them. Second, I am glad the snake we have, African Sand Boa, is small and doesn’t bite (at least not hard).

Lastly, I have learned that I should have been taking snakebites a lot more serious.

I have never participated in the rattlesnake vaccine or aversion classes. I will be doing both now. I also urge everyone who can to get pet insurance. I signed up with Healthy Paws when we got a new puppy.

My last dog had a lot of health issues and we didn’t have pet insurance. The cost was unbelievable and we were just dealing with arthritis issues and knee issues. Since the average cost of a snake bite can be costly, dog owners are urged to check into pet insurance.

On a final note, when walking in the back hills always try to stay on the main trail and stay alert.

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Kellie Welty