I love being outdoors. Walking, hiking, gardening, exploring, I do it all and it’s usually with at least one dog to accompany me. My pets and I can become pretty oblivious as we meander through grassy meadows and majestic forests as we try to take it all in. But, as we wander, it’s important to keep potential dangers to pets (and to yourself) in mind to avoid what could be a fatal encounter – particularly encounters with one of the various venomous snakes native to North America. I don’t believe that snakes are malicious or evil creatures, and I know that they won’t seek me or my dog out to attack, but the thought of a chance meeting in a remote field or woodland can be a distinct possibility when you explore the wild. In such a situation it pays to be informed.
What to Watch For
In the U.S.A. there are over 36 species of pit viper. These include Rattlesnakes, Moccasins and Copperheads and they are the snakes that pose a serious threat if you should encounter them on the trial. Pit Vipers are recognized by several physical characteristics including triangular heads and slit-like pupils. Rattlesnakes, of course, have the added “rattle” defense mechanism on their tail to signal and warn of their presence if alarmed. Before you explore, take the time to familiarize yourself with the species that may be present where you’re going to be. In Pennsylvania, for example, of 21 native snake species, only 3 are venomous: northern copperhead, eastern massasauga rattlesnake, and timber rattlesnake. Knowing what these snakes look like, thier range, and what their typical habitat and behaviors are can help you further avoid running into one.
Snakes tend to be most active in the morning and the evening, but that doesn’t rule out the chance of an encounter at another point in the day. If you’re out and about, the best thing to do is keep your dog near or within sight so you can tell if he has come upon something that is better left alone.
These venomous snakes (for the most part) like non-venomous snakes are timid and elusive. They would rather flee than fight, and will hurry away if allowed to and not harassed. Problems usually occur when a curious pet finds a snake and thinks it will be more fun to play than to back off. Most bites reach muzzles, shoulders and legs, as the dog lunges toward and away from the snake. The venom of these snakes is a commodity to them, imperative to their survival, so they want to save it for the use it is intended for, killing prey.
Preventing Encounters and Bites
The best course of action in dealing with venomous snakes and snake bites is prevention. Whether in your back yard or on the trail, there are several steps you can take with your pet to avoid catastrophe. You could confine your pet and not take him with you on outings, but that is no fun an all. With some simple steps you can enjoy nature treks while minimizing risk. As mentioned previously, keeping your pet near and within your line of sight can be the first line of defense. If you live in an area where you may find these animals in your back yard, do your best to keep prime snake habitat to a minimum by keeping the area free of wood and rubbish piles, and other spots where a snake might like to seek shelter. Likewise, areas where prey items such as mice and rats may gather should be secured…where prey is present, predators lurk too.
Another crucial preventative step is having a well-trained pet. Dogs can’t tell the difference between a venomous snake and a non-venomous one. They are curious animals by nature and their senses may be unavoidably aroused at the smells, sounds and movements of a reptilian being. Teach your dog to “leave it”. The “leave it” command should ensure that when you issue it, the dog leaves whatever has its attention and shifts his focus to you. You can even train your dog to recognize and avoid snakes specifically. They can be far less likely to experience a bite if they recognize the sound (rattles) or sight of a snake as a danger that is to be left alone without a verbal command. In the Southwest, where rattlesnake encounters are more prevalent, you can even take your pet to school to learn this skill.
If prevention fails, it is also crucial to know the signs and symptoms of a bite and the steps to getting your dog the proper treatment if a bite should occur.
If Your Pet is Bitten
If you find that your pet has been bitten by a venomous snake, it is important to stay calm and to keep your pet as calm as possible. That being said, a snakebite is a serious injury, a true emergency and immediate veterinary care is necessary for treatment. The first 2 hours are a crucial window for successful treatment, but depending on several factors, that window may be smaller.
Rattlesnake venom varies depending on the species. Most have a hemotoxic venom which means that the venom effects the blood and tissue of the victim (the Mojave in the southwest has neurotoxic venom which causes rapid paralysis). The venom causes swelling, bleeding, pain, and shock. Many factors including the species, age and size of snake, size of your pet, and site and severity of envenomation will play a role in how your dog reacts and his ability to survive. Some defensive bites can even be “dry”, meaning no venom is injected, but the sooner you get your pet to an emergency vet for assessment and treatment the better.
If you see the snake that has bitten your pet, move the dog and yourself out of harm’s way, but try to note the general size and appearance or species of snake to help your vet to effectively treat your pet. Keep your pet calm and still. Remove his collar if the bite is on the face or neck in case of swelling. The best thing to to is get your pet to a vet for prompt and proper emergency care. Do not apply tourniquets or ice, and do not attempt to extract the venom…just get to the vet.
Treatment of bites may include IV fluids, blood pressure monitoring and observation, antivenin administered intravenously (only within the first 4 hours), antihistamines, pain medications and antibiotics to prevent secondary infection.
If your pet is treated for a venomous bite within 2 hours after being bitten, the treatments have a higher degree of success. If your pet is showing progress and response to treatment after 24 hours the rate of survival is high. Long-term antibiotic treatment is usually necessary to avoid serious secondary infections to the tissue around the bite. Scarring is likely (some tissue damage can be severe enough that a limb may be lost) and these wounds are often slow to heal. Many factors can contribute to the success of treatment and recovery.
Within the past decade, vaccinations against the venom of several species has been created by Red Rock Biologics. This may be an option for dogs with a higher risk of being bitten, if you live in an area with more concentrated snake populations or if you travel, hike, or camp frequently in these areas. You can discuss the vaccine more with your vet to decide if it is something you want to consider. Even if a dog is vaccinated, any bite should be evaluated by a vet as soon as possible.