Jul 17 2013

Dogs, Snakes, and Summer

I have seen more snakebites this summer than I have in a long time.  I guess its the rain making the undergrowth so lush and humid and dogs poking their nose around where it shouldn’t be. 

Most bites we see are from copperheads – due to their behavior and habitat.  Copperheads are ambush predators, which means they sit there and wait for prey to come by.  Often, when a human or a dog comes poking around, they are scared of confrontation but freeze -like a rabbit – instead of leaving the scene.  They live in deciduous forests and “mixed wooded areas” (I understand that to mean dense undergrowth). So, they wait around for their prey in dense undergrowth where small animals are likely to come, and when a dog comes around they stand still instead of running away .

Fortunately, the copperheads bite is rarely fatal due to two reasons.  First, copperhead venom is the least potent venom found in the pit viper family.  It usually causes local tissue death and severe pain, but does not usually systemically affect the animal.  Secondly, copperheads are capable of a warning bite that delivers either no or very little venom.  What we see when a dog enters the clinic is a swollen area with fang marks in the center.  Often the tissues start to die around the bite and appear black, or dark purple.  The top layer of skin around the bite typically falls off within the first few hours.  Pain control, antibiotics, and wound care are our mainstays of treatment.

Occasionally the dog is small and the bite is large, I am worried about the systemic response to the bite or to widespread tissue injury.  We run a coagulation profile and a blood count on these pups to make sure their body is not having problems handling the stress of bite and inflammation.  Fortunately, even with these guys they almost never have a bad response to a snake bite.

I would encourage everyone to think about snakes in and around their undergrowth this season.  Snakebites can’t be prevented 100%, but you can decrease the risk of finding a snake the hard way by keeping your dogs out of areas where these snakes like to hunt.  If you suspect a snake bite, call your veterinarian right away.

– Doc Cleland

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