Snake Season Survival Stories

By Drs. David and Betsy Thompson

We have had three of our own beloved dogs bitten by venomous snakes in the last two years, so we certainly understand that even the most diligent pet parent cannot totally protect their pet from the danger of poisonous snakes, at least not if you allow them to accompany you on outdoor outings. Our experiences with our own dogs may be helpful to you, so we want to share their snake bite stories with you. Poisonous snakes are prevalent in Western North Carolina, so please be aware that if your dog is bitten by one, he or she needs immediate veterinary care. Many veterinary hospitals do not stock antivenin, but here at Animal Hospital of North Asheville, we keep several vials in stock. Antivenin can be life-saving when it is needed.

Our sweet, big old hound dog, Bob, was the first to be bitten. He was with us enjoying running free in a yard at a lake when he suddenly ran up to us limping and upset. His foot and leg looked normal, but his foot was very slightly swollen. We could not see even a puncture mark. Within minutes, his foot was significantly swollen. We were still unsure whether he had been bitten by a snake or an insect, but did not want to take any chances so we quickly rounded up our whole crew, got them in the van and headed for AHNA which was about 45 minutes away. By the time we pulled into the parking lot, Bob had lost control of his bowels, vomited, and was in a great deal of pain. His foot and lower leg were swollen about four or five times their normal size. Needless to say, he got immediate treatment including lots of pain medication, other drugs, fluids and three bottles of antivenin over the next 8 hours. Bob was more severely affected by his bite than most dogs we have treated and we were concerned for his life for the first 12 hours as his condition was very serious. Once his condition improved and he stabilized, we were greatly relieved, but our next worry was that his foot was so badly damaged by the venom that his foot might not be savable. At the end of the first 12 hours his entire leg, extending up into his body, was hugely swollen. The lowermost part of his leg was black and there was a large area of dead skin and muscle. Fortunately, we were able to prevent infection from setting in and with weeks of pain medicine, debridement, wound care, laser therapy and bandage changes, he made a full recovery.  We were very, very thankful. Bob experienced an unusually severe reaction to the snake bite as it is unusual for a dog to require three vials of antivenin. The severity of what he suffered leads us to think that he was bitten by a rattlesnake, since the bites of copperheads do not generally cause such a severe reaction. The photo above shows Bob shortly after arriving at AHNA after being bitten. He was in life threatening condition.

Later that same summer, our slightly smaller Basset/Dachshund cross, Roy, was accompanying our family on a rented pontoon boat on a different lake much farther away when, upon re-boarding the boat after a stop for a quick swim, he vomited. We cleaned it up and watched him closely. Within a few minutes, his face was starting to swell. Even though we immediately zoomed off for the marina, it took several hours to get from our remote location across the lake and drive the long distance to a veterinary office. The veterinarian did not carry antivenin but we were able to get pain medication and other drugs that we needed. Still a great distance from AHNA, we treated him overnight where we were staying and Roy did very well. The swelling of his face was never extreme and it began to subside late that night. About 11 PM, true to his reputation for never missing a meal, Roy was able to drink and eat soft food. By the next afternoon, Roy was back to normal and had no area on his face that needed to heal. We were, again, very thankful. The photo above shows Roy while still on the boat shortly after being bitten.  Notice the swelling on the right side of his face, his obvious pain and his drooling.

The next summer, our little 10 pound Yorkie-cross grand-dog, Hughie, was on a trip with us along with his mom, our daughter, when he suddenly jumped out of some tall grass and was limping. He immediately showed signs of lameness, extreme pain, trembling and whining. We could not imagine what was wrong because his leg looked normal, but he has a lot of hair so examining the skin was almost impossible. Upon very close examination, we could see very small punctures each with a tiny bit of blood. We jumped in the car with him and took off for emergency veterinary care that was available about 30 minutes away. During the drive, Hughie began to show signs of shock and his condition worsened. Luckily, the emergency hospital did have antivenin but his condition did not stabilize until late that night, so he was hospitalized overnight. The next day we brought him to Asheville where we continued care for the large wound that resulted from the bite. It took two weeks of care before his leg was healed to the point that our daughter could pick him up and take him to her home in Atlanta. We love that sweet little Hughie and really enjoyed having him at our house while we nursed him back to health. The photo above shows the Thompson’s granddog, Hughie, recuperating at the Thompson’s house with their dog, Ellie. This picture shows the wound almost healed.  

If this had to happen to a family, it is good that it was ours since we are both veterinarians. Fortunately, it is pretty unusual for one family to have three dogs bitten by poisonous snakes in less than two years. You can see that each dog reacted differently. We are convinced that antivenin saved the life of Bob and probably Hughie. Roy, on the other hand, had a much less severe reaction. In any event, your pet needs immediate care if your pet is bitten by a poisonous snake.

The following was taken from the theanimalrescuresite.com and is great advice:

  • Venom: Not all snakes are venomous, but those that are can be fatal to a dog that doesn’t get the necessary treatment in time. A snake’s venom potency can be affected by everything from its size and age, to the time of year, location of the bite, and the amount of movement by the victim after the bite (as movement increases the venom’s spread).
  • Symptoms: Look for small puncture wounds and bleeding. The site of the bite will often swell rapidly and be extremely painful for the dog. Systemic signs associated with venom acts on different timetables, from minutes to hours. Symptoms include shock, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, muscle tremors, and neurological difficulties like trouble breathing.
  • Identify the snake: If you’re in the area when your dog is bit, try to get a good look at the snake. Knowing what species of snake bit your beloved friend might just save their life.
  • Get to the Vet: You MUST seek veterinary assistance as soon as you realize your dog has been bitten. Restrict their movement as much as possible and loosely immobilize the limb if they’ve been bitten on a paw or leg. Keep them as calm and comfortable as possible on the trip over.
  • Treatments: The vet will determine what the best course of treatment is for your dog. Antihistamines, IV fluids, NSAIDs, corticosteroids, and antivenin are some of the treatment options available to your vet.
  • Important Don’ts: Don’t cut the wound hoping it will drain the venom. Don’t attempt to suck out the venom. Don’t apply a tourniquet. Don’t apply ice to the area.
  • Follow up: Even if your dog isn’t showing any serious signs at the moment, it’s important to closely monitor them for adverse reactions for at least 12 hours. If there are clinical signs, the observation window goes up to 48 to 72 hours.

Read more here.

Comments

I'm in New Mexico now with my new Belgian Malinois, Aress. Since this is high desert rattlesnake country, the vets carry a preventive serum that is given in a series of two injections a month apart, which markedly decreases the severity of the bites when (not so much IF around here, but WHEN) they happen. It's also given to large animals because they have to graze "out there" where the snakes are, and the vets tell me it does markedly lower morbidity and mortality, and reduces the need for antivenin. Fortunately in this part of the country we don't have copperheads or water moccasins to deal with, so it makes prevention easier. Now if they would just come up with something like that for humans....!

We do have copperheads here but rattlesnakes are less common than in New Mexico, so we do not recommend rattlesnake vaccine. The rattlesnake vaccine is controversial and there is still no controlled data on the efficacy of it. Reports of its effectiveness are all anecdotal. Some veterinarians who use it believe that it is helpful and some veterinarians report a high rate of adverse reactions to the vaccine. A series of two vaccines is required initially and then boosters every 6 months.  It is important for pet families to know that vaccination does not eliminate the need for immediate veterinary care if a dog is bitten by a rattlesnake. We are indeed fortunate to be at less of a risk from rattlesnakes here in Asheville than you were in New Mexico!

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