Snakes and your dog: the danger and what to do about it

Post by Dr. Lauren Stump

With Austin’s plethora of green spaces, who doesn’t want to spend their free time outdoors with their furry friend? Enjoying nature means enjoying everything that comes with it – and this far south, that includes venomous snakes that are active almost year-round. Texas is home to Coral snakes, Cottonmouths, Copperheads, and 9 different species of Rattlesnake. A healthy respect for these creatures in their natural habitat is necessary to understanding how to avoid them and their bites. Whether it’s thanks to tv (melo)drama, our parents’ wisdom, or a dislike of the creepy-crawly in general, most humans know to avoid poisonous snakes. But what about your four-legged best friend? Some dogs show a natural avoidance of things that hiss or rattle, but unfortunately some do not. So what can you do to make sure a bite doesn’t happen?

(An apology to our feline friends: most of this pertains to dogs only. Most cats are snake averse, so the best added prevention we can give them is to spay and neuter to keep them from wandering far from home!)

First, let’s talk about what a bite can do and how we treat it

Snake bites can be extremely painful, life-threatening, and scary. In addition to local destruction of skin and muscle, snake venom can stimulate a deadly inflammatory cascade throughout the body, permanently damage internal organs, and cause coagulopathies that lead to internal bleeding. The good news is that the vast majority of animals will survive a snake bite, and getting them appropriate care as soon as possible increases chances of survival and minimizes permanent organ damage. Bites can require hospitalization with monitoring of clotting factors and number of circulating red blood cells, administration of intravenous fluids, anti-venom, pain medication, antibiotics, and other medications as needed. Not only is it painful and stressful for them, but all this can mean serious emotional and financial stress on you too!

What dogs are especially at risk?

Your pet’s odds of being bitten increase with the more exposure he or she has, so if you and Fido like to hit the trails on the weekend or even the greenbelt after work, you’re more at risk than an indoors-except-for-the-bathroom resident of a downtown loft. Even the most cautious of dogs can unsuspectingly wander up on a snake in the wild, but proud parents of the brazen and curious take note: some dogs are less apt to show a natural aversion to them. Snakes and dogs together can give a new meaning to the phrase “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong” – there’s a reason a lot of bites are seen on the face. Size matters too: when a bite happens, a small dog’s body has a harder time dealing with the same amount of venom as a larger dog. A lot of variables play a role in the severity of a bite, including the age and species of snake, how much venom is released, and the depth and location on your pet’s body.

What if a bite does occur?

First, stay calm. Stress won’t help the situation, and remember the odds of a good outcome are in your favor! DON’T cut into the snake bite, try to suck out the venom, apply ice or heat, or give your pet any medications on your way to the vet. This can make the situation worse. Your best chances for a good outcome are just to get to your closest veterinarian in a safe and timely manner.

What about prevention?

Hiding indoors is no option, so take active steps to avoid snakes when you’re outside. They tend to be the introverted solitary type and don’t cause trouble unless they’re afraid or surprised. Keeping your dog close to you can help prevent a bite from happening and make it easier for you to get him or her to a vet ASAP if one does occur. Physiologically, snakes are ectotherms, meaning they rely on the environment to heat and cool their bodies. If it’s chilly or just clearing after a storm, you’re more likely to see one sunning itself on a warm rock. If it’s hot out, beware of cool spots under bushes, rocks, and overhangs. Time of day matters too – snakes are more likely to be out hunting rodents at night, sunning in the mornings and evenings, and hiding during the midday heat. They’re also natural camouflage champions who like to hide in grasses, leaves, and shadows where their patterns will help them blend with their surroundings.

If you hike or camp out with your dog regularly, you might consider these popular additional measures:

  • Avoidance Training: Most AT services use live, “de-venomed” snakes in a series of encounters to quickly form negative associations. This can be a worthwhile investment, especially if your dog will frequently be out in snake habitats. It is certainly less painful and physically damaging, and can be less expensive than a snake bite and the resultant veterinary care needed to save your pet’s life.
  • Rattlesnake Vaccines: Designed only to add protection, having the vaccine does NOT mean your dog doesn’t need to see a veterinarian for emergency care. It just means that with the appropriate care, the effects of the snake bite will be lessened. It works by stimulating your dog’s immune system to produce antibodies to snake venom, neutralizing some of toxin and therefore decreasing damage and speeding healing. It’s most effective against Western and Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, offers varying protection against some other snakes, but doesn’t protect against Mojave rattlers, Coral snakes, or Cottonmouths. Its efficacy isn’t proven so it’s not endorsed by official veterinary organizations, but side effects are rare and generally mild. Take note –Its protection won’t last more than 6 months, and vaccinations should be timed according to peak snake season. Working out an individualized schedule with your vet is key!

Key points:

  1. Stay alert and keep an eye out for snakes
  2. Know when and where you’re most likely to see a venomous snake, and how to identify them
  3. Keep your dog close and don’t let him or her explore holes or dig under leaves, logs, and rocks.
  4. Venomous snake bites are ALWAYS an emergency, vaccination or not. If a bite to your pet occurs, get him or her to the vet ASAP, but remain calm.
  5. If your pets are at high risk of a bite, you might consider aversion training or the rattlesnake vaccine. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best comprehensive plan for your pet.

The next time you’re out enjoying the beautiful local scenery, remember that our native snake population is too. Keep a respectful distance for both you and your furry friends’ benefit. Happy trails, Austin!

Comments are closed.