By John Andersen, DVM
“Jack” is a 5-year-old Jack Russell Terrier who came in on emergency one day with a swollen and painful face. Jack and his parents live in North Garden and the best they could tell, Jack was hanging out in their backyard and suddenly came running up to them pawing at his face. They saw some blood and then noticed his lips were swelling, so they wisely brought him straight in.
Looking Jack over, he was surprisingly bright and alert despite his lips and muzzle seeming to swell and bruise more and more by the minute. Sure enough, on the right side of his muzzle were the telltale marks—two small punctures that were oozing blood and surrounded by bruising. Classic snakebite.
As the weather is now warming up, it’s snake season! They certainly have a purpose on this planet, but boy, I’d be happy never to see one in nature again. Unfortunately, our dogs look at snakes with curiosity, needing to sniff, nuzzle, or paw at them to check them out. It’s no surprise that the snakes are not amused and will strike out of fear, not aggression.
Jack did well; we treated him supportively and watched him for the day to make sure he didn’t start to crash on us. Believe it or not, that was Jack’s fourth snakebite! All are presumed to be from copperheads. If he could talk, he’d say he’s just doing his job. So here’s a crash course on what you need to know about snakes in Virginia and your pets.
Non-venomous snakes: In 12 years of practice, I have never had a dog come in because of a nonvenomous snakebite. Garter snakes, black snakes, and Northern brown water snakes—these are common, but harmless and pose no risk to your pets. Cats really seem to like hunting garter snakes and if your cat goes outside, don’t be surprised to find an injured garter snake in your living room one day!
Venomous snakes: Virginia has three species of native venomous snakes: the Northern Copperhead, the Eastern Cottonmouth, and the Timber Rattlesnake. The Eastern Cottonmouth doesn’t (shouldn’t!) live in our part of Virginia, so now we can narrow it down to just two species we have to worry about, copperheads and timber rattlers.
Copperheads are by far the most common venomous snake around here and make up about 95 percent of the snakebites we see. This is good, because although copperhead bites are always a medical emergency, these are rarely fatal if treated quickly. Copperhead bites will quickly swell and bruise, often with some blood oozing from the punctures. Fortunately, this is usually as bad as it gets and they tend to stabilize over several hours and resolve after a few days. However, it is not uncommon for copperhead bites to lead to low blood pressure/shock, and platelet/clotting issues. Thus, you should always bring your dog to the vet or emergency vet ASAP after a copperhead bite. We do not treat with antivenom, we simply support the animals as needed with pain medication, fluids, +/- anti-inflammatories, +/- antibiotics. Copperheads can be identified best by the dark, sideways hourglass-shaped markings on their bodies. These are often confused with the northern brown water snake, which has dark markings that are wider in the middle and narrow towards the sides (the opposite of an hour glass).
Timber Rattlesnakes, though much less common than copperheads, tend to have much worse envenomations. Rattlesnake venom often causes massive tissue damage at the site of the bite and is more likely to lead to shock and circulatory collapse. I have seen just one rattlesnake bite in 12 years, and the dog did survive, but ultimately needed a week of hospitalization and three different surgeries over several weeks to recover fully.
So, imagine you’re hiking with your dog and she gets bit by a venomous snake—what do you do?
Get her to a veterinarian ASAP. If it’s the weekend and your regular vet isn’t open, there are two emergency veterinary hospitals in Charlottesville. Get her seen immediately; don’t wait.
If you are two miles into the woods, stay calm and get back to the car as quickly as possible. Don’t try to suck venom out, tourniquet the leg, or cut the skin open. The best thing you can do is carry your dog (if she’s light enough). We want her to keep as calm and inactive as possible to reduce swelling and keep her heart rate low. If she’s a big dog, walk her out of the woods. Don’t run. Stay calm.
Take it or leave it, snakes are a part of the wild world we live in and when we get outside with our pets, occasionally the two are going to meet. Fortunately, for all of the dogs that live around here and hike regularly, snakebites are relatively rare. Don’t stay out of the woods for fear of snakes! Keeping your dog on leash will greatly minimize the risk of snakebite.