It is very easy to panic in cases like these. The reality is, the calmer you are, the calmer your pet will be.
If your pet is bitten by a venomous snake be sure to do the following:
- Quickly move them out of the danger zone
- Loosen/remove the collar
- Try to get a positive identification on the snake
- Head to your local emergency vet
- Don’t panic
- And remember snakes are still good to have around
I’ve spent a good deal of my life with or around animals. I love them. I often find myself championing the maligned and misunderstood. I studied bats briefly in college and earned the moniker “herp nerd” by my professor due to my love of reptiles and amphibians. They are my first love. My other passion comes in the furry four-legged variety. My dogs. I have a penchant of squishy faced, dopey boxers and hyper active hounds. Always have. A few weeks ago, my two worlds collided.
I let my hound mix and my boxer out to play in the yard as I put a few things in my truck in preparation for an appointment later that morning. That’s when I heard it. The excited yip my boxer makes when he’s found something. I’ve heard this bark when he’s found a box turtle ambling across my back yard, or when he came up on an ornery black racer in a defensive strike pose. I didn’t think much of it at the time but still made my way down to the far end of my backyard just in case.
Both dogs have a very high prey drive as evidenced this summer by the myriad mole, vole, and baby opossums that they played a little too rough with during their hunts. I picked up my pace when I saw the tell-tale serpentine shape being thrashed back and forth in the mouth of my boxer. This wasn’t a black snake. The beige color made my heart skip a beat and my pace quickened. My worst fear was confirmed when I identified the species striking wildly at both dogs. It was a copperhead.
The southern copperhead is the only venomous snake in my county, and as bad luck would have it, my dogs cornered one. I shooed them off of the snake and saw the poor copperhead had sustained a mortal wound from the dogs. This didn’t weaken the snakes drive to defend his fading life. My hound just sauntered off seemingly unharmed, but my boxer was drooling badly and started moving in a way that made me suspicious.
Frantically I got them both back up to the house. That’s when I saw my boxer was bleeding from both jowls, under his chin, and most alarmingly from between the eyes. He started wheezing and wobbling and I became a tad hysterical. I called my wife, with tears in my voice, and had her get in touch with our veterinarian who promptly told us to go to the emergency vet on the other side of town. I loaded my buddy up in my truck and sped to the vet.
His breathing was becoming labored with the venom from the multiple bites starting to cause swelling that cut off his airway. I loosened his collar so it wouldn’t further restrict his breathing. I was crying both for the snake and my dogs. I felt like such a failure as a conservationist and dog owner. The two worlds collided in a traumatic way and I felt partially responsible. This was literally my nightmare.
Five days prior to the bite in my yard, a neighbor spotted a copperhead in theirs and called me to relocate it. When I got the call, I was driving and by the time I got to their house it was long gone. I chastised myself almost a week later as I drove my best friend to the emergency vet. If I had only searched harder for the snake last week, maybe I could have spared all parties involved. Was that the same snake that got my dogs? It felt very weird for me, the snake guy, to be on the receiving end of a bad snake experience. I’m usually the guy other people call.
My wife met me at the vet, having prepped the staff on our situation, and I turned my dog over to the vet tech. Without listening to my concerns, the tech slipped a noose leash over my dog’s constricted airway and drug him across the floor. He let out a scream of pain that sent shockwaves through my body and I lost my mind. Let’s just say quite a few expletives came out of my mouth as my wife pushed me to the waiting area. This was my boy, my best friend. hey seemed so apathetic and uncaring it really made my blood boil. After I sat for a while with my wife, I decided I should go check on the other dogs. The hound specifically. He didn’t look like he’d been bitten, so in a moment of triage I only grabbed the boxer.
When I pulled up into my driveway the hound wasn’t sitting on the back of our loveseat staring out the window. My heart sunk. I opened the door and he crept to our foyer slowly greeting me. His neck was swollen like a bullfrog in heat. I immediately scooped him up in my arms and called my wife. Off to the emergency vet I went…again. During the drive I saw one tiny bite mark on his lower lip and aside from the swelling around his neck, he was acting more or less normal. It appeared, and was later confirmed, that he had a very mild bite.
The snake did nothing wrong. When its other lines of defense such as camouflage and flight are mitigated, it only has one tool left; to bite. I still love snakes, even copperheads. I’ve championed them for years and will continue to do so. The hound was essentially back to normal the next day after getting pain meds and observation at the emergency vet. Since the boxer took the brunt of the envenomation his recovery took a few extra days and his care at the emergency vet included IV fluids and a few extra steps. He was essentially fine by the end of that week with only some scabbing puncture marks on his face as a reminder of the experience. The timeliness of getting him to the vet was likely what prevented his experience from being worse.
I got a call from my mom during the course of my research for this article. In desperation she says “I’m living your nightmare.” After a quick quip about having many nightmares, I asked her to elaborate. She said her tiny 7-pound Yorkie mix had just been bitten by a mid-sized copperhead in her back yard. My mom’s yard is very well maintained with natural areas and flowerbeds surrounding a swimming pool. She has lived in the same subdivided neighborhood for 30 years. Growing up, I explored the woods and mourned their disappearance with each new cookie cutter house that was built on the bones of that forest. Her neighborhood is a perfect example of habitat loss and the effects on local wildlife. Although in the entire time she has lived there she has never noticed a copperhead in her yard, we have seen them within a few hundred meters in the road.
Since the snakes still exist in those small pockets of natural areas, they are beginning to move ever closer to people’s homes in search of food, shelter, and basking sites. Her experience was similar to mine in that her dog was bitten on the jawline by a copperhead and thankfully it only got bitten just once, vs my dog getting bitten four plus times. The problem arises when you consider my dog, although he was likely given a larger dose of venom, he’s also a much larger dog. He is literally ten times the size of my mom’s dog. The emergency vet treated her dog the day of the event and had two follow up appointments on the subsequent days. Her vet bill was similar to mine as far as protocols and medicines administered. My vet bill for my two dogs was around $1500 and my mom’s bill was very close to the same amount for her three appointments for her small dog. I say that to illustrate that aside from the trauma for all parties involved, there is a literal cost associated with treating this issue as well. That puts the cost of snake aversion training and property management in perspective. It is likely much cheaper to tidy up our yards and take an extra few minutes to watch the dogs when we let them out than to pay more vet bills for negative interactions with snakes.
Why are there so many copperheads lately?
People are noticing snakes, copperheads specifically, more in the past few years. So why is there a sudden uptick in encounters? One short anecdotal answer is that more people have been working from home since the pandemic, and they are now more aware of the environment that surrounds their new home offices. New neighborhoods are popping up at an alarming rate because of the housing boom. This is further destroying viable habitat and making encounters more frequent. They don’t have anywhere else to go and end up on the manicured lawns of suburbia. Copperheads seem to adapt fairly well to disturbed and more urban/suburban environments as they exploit the pests brought on from bird feeders and other human implements.
Georgia Copperhead Populations Rise As Kingsnake Populations Decline
Dr David Steen, Ph.D (author of “Secrets of Snakes: The Science Behind the Myths”) conducted research regarding the decline of Eastern king snakes and hypothesized in his 2014 paper in the journal Herpetologica that their decline has resulted in the increase of their prey, to include copperheads. “Our data revealed a negative relationship between the relative abundances of copperheads and kingsnakes. Therefore, our results provide support for the common suggestion that Kingsnake declines in the Southeastern United States, and associated decease in predation pressure, have caused a release of Copperhead populations…the relative abundance of copperheads may increase across the Southeastern United States if additional kingsnake populations crash and disappear. This shifting composition of snake assemblages in the Southeastern United States could have wide ranging effects within relevant ecological systems.”
Dr. Nicolette Cagle, Duke University ecologist and author of “Saving Snakes: Snakes and the Evolution of a Field Naturalist” says “we can’t prove that the lack of kingsnakes causes more copperheads, but the idea would be that kingsnakes are copperhead predators and when kingsnake populations decline, more copperheads can survive. In all likelihood, that relationship is more complicated. In general, kingsnakes need more room (have larger home ranges) than copperheads and that means that kingsnakes have more interactions with roads and need more habitat to meet their feeding needs. Copperheads, on the other hand, tend to have smaller home ranges than similarly sized colubrids (but not all, as garter snakes have relatively small home ranges).”
What you should do if your pet is bitten
One of the things I learned during my ordeal with my dogs and the copperhead is in that traumatic moment, I was at a loss for what to do. I’m typically on the receiving end of these calls and often relocate copperheads from frantic people’s yards—now I’m the frantic one. First and foremost, get yourself and your pet away from the snake. If it is at all possible to safely do so, try to snap a few quick pictures of the snake for a positive identification. If you are unexperienced with snakes, I wouldn’t suggest trying to move or relocate the snake yourself. I also would advise against trying to kill the snake. Aside from the obvious mantra of “snakes are great for the environment” that you’ve heard people like me tell you; statistically more bites occur while someone is attempting to kill them. To quote Dr Nicolette Cagle again, “Snakes are a fundamental part of many ecosystems, acting as both predators and prey. And the loss of individual snake populations or entire species could have numerous unforeseen consequences.”
If you know someone who can safely move the snake off of your property, call them. If not, just understand although it may not be favorable to have a venomous snake on your property, they’ve always been there. You likely have lived in the same spot for years and never encountered a copperhead. I will discuss ways to mitigate the risks of copperheads in your yard further down in the article, so standby.
Now that you are clear of the threat, and have positively identified the snake and have a picture to show your veterinarian; load up the pup and get moving. Time is of the essence. Depending on the severity of the bite, your dog or cat may need antivenin. The bulk majority of Southeastern venomous snake species are pit vipers (excluding the neurotoxic coral snake.) Viper bites typically cause necrosis and severe pain at the injection site. Necrosis is basically cell death and damage to tissues. Venom is designed in a large part to actively breakdown flesh for digestion. If you pet needs antivenin it won’t reverse the damage done prior to its administration, so it is important to get your animal to the veterinarian as soon as possible to mitigate the severity of the bite.
Just by the nature of animal behavior, statistically dogs are bitten on the face and head and the bulk majority of bites on cats are on the front paws and leg. In the case of dogs, this is problematic and often why they react somewhat more negatively than cats do, aside from cats having some level of tolerance to venom biologically. With dogs, since they are typically bitten in the face, you need to pay attention to their breathing as it may become labored. In the case of my dogs, both of them swelled significantly around their necks due to edema caused by the venom. Make sure you loosen any collars or clothing that may be on your dog so as to lessen some of the risk of restricting their airway.
Dr. Mark Cagle, DVM has a veterinary practice in Durham, North Carolina and is also a snake lover and someone who understands both snakes and snakebites in pets. He is also married to Dr. Nicolette Cagle, an ecologist specializing in snakes from Duke University. I only qualify this to indicate he’s not a “normal” veterinarian and I take what he says very seriously given his expertise and experience with both pets and snakes. When I asked him about treatment protocols he says that treatment modalities can vary due to severity of a pet’s reaction to a bite.
“If a bite is mild, then all that may be needed are pain medications. If more severe, hospitalization is required. Treatment could include antivenin to neutralize the venom (to help decrease pain and tissue damage as well as treat coagulopathies), iv fluids to treat shock/hypotension, and pain control with opioids such as hydromorphone or buprenorphine. Pain control is important given how painful envenomations can be (venom is made to break down tissue). Sometimes the tissue will die and slough (tissue necrosis). This becomes apparent many days after a bite. Usually, antibiotics are started when this happens. Wound treatment is carried out as needed. In regards to antibiotics, it is no longer advised to start antibiotics right away. It would seem that you would want to since bite would do introduce bacteria under the skin; however, a paper that came out in 2015 showed that with rattlesnake bites, showed that infection from bite wounds is unlikely. Of course, if an abscess forms or if there is tissue necrosis/tissue sloughing, then antibiotics are needed. Steroids have no place in the treatment of snake envenomation and can make things worse.”
What you shouldn’t do
It is very easy to panic in cases like these. The reality is, the calmer you are, the calmer your pet will be. It’s ideal to keep your pet as calm and comfortable as possible as you transport them to a veterinarian and move away from the threat. DO NOT use tourniquets or suction devices for pit viper bites. Dr. Mark Cagle, DVM says “this concentrates the venom causing more tissue damage. Don’t try to suck out venom or use the sawyer extraction kit since neither is effective.” Dr. Mark Cagle advises against any treatment by the pet owner and says “the most important part is getting a pet to the hospital.” Your emergency veterinarian will conduct blood tests, check blood pressure, and do a basic triage at the time of admittance. This is also why it is imperative to know the species of snake that bit your pet since it can impact the care provided by the veterinarian.
The most abundant venomous snake in the Southeast is the copperhead. Copperheads have the widest distribution, however, statistically more bites are attributed to rattlesnakes. The treatment for a rattlesnake bite versus a copperhead bite is similar, but rattlesnake venom is much more destructive. Treatment for a rattlesnake bite is often accompanied by antivenin, whereas with copperheads it is less likely your vet will go that route since copperhead venom is less severe in most cases. To be very clear, any envenomation should be treated as a critical traumatic event until cleared by a veterinarian. Every animal reacts differently to venom and it is always best to use an abundance of caution when dealing with an envenomation.
Many people erroneously told me via Facebook messages and phone conversations while I was enroute to the emergency vet that I should have given my dogs Benadryl or aspirin. It immediately felt like a misnomer and I opted, thankfully, against self-administering drugs to my dogs. Dr. Mark Cagle says “people should not give Benadryl/antihistamines. Antihistamines are no longer recommended. If there is a reaction to antivenin (anaphylaxis), then it should be given. Some doctors will give it prior to antivenin (to feel better). There are exceptions. There are rare occasions that a dog can have an anaphylactic reaction to snake venom. Given this is not common, it is not current protocol to give. Aspirin should never be used to treat snake envenomations. This is because of the effect it has on platelets (inhibits platelet function and platelet aggregation) which can lead to coagulation/bleeding issues especially when combined with snake venom.”
How to prevent future encounters
What can we do to prevent encounters with venomous snakes on our property? The first thing you can do is to simply take a look at the “low hanging fruit” both literal and figurative on your property. Do you have fruit trees or bird feeders? If the answer to either is yes, it may be prudent to keep those areas cleaned up since those things can bring in prey items for snakes thereby also attracting snakes. Are there wood piles, brush piles, tall grass, or other environmental features on your property that can house mice and their predators? If the answer is yes, it may be a good idea to clean up those areas to eliminate spots for wildlife to take refuge. In my experience I have all of the above and intentionally do so to create wildlife corridors and attractants. Although I didn’t anticipate drawing in copperheads, they’re vital to the environment and outside of their interactions with my dogs, I welcome all snakes on my property as long as we all respect each other’s boundaries.
During my research I was temporality relieved to find that there is a pit viper vaccine for dogs. It is called Crotalus Atrox Toxoid (CAT) vaccine and is manufactured by Red Rock Biologics. It is primarily used in the Western United States and its principal target species is for Rattlesnakes. This doesn’t mitigate the need for veterinary care if your pet is bitten, but it does theoretically lessen the initial toxic effect of the venom. In the journal SIS1, specifically the article “Rattlesnake Vaccine to Prevent Envenomation Toxicity in Dogs” Dale M. Wallis, DVM says of the vaccine “Venom neutralizing antibody reduces the ‘effective dose’ of venom and thus the potential for local necrotic and systemic injury following envenomation.”
When I asked Dr. Mark Cagle, DVM about the vaccine he stated “There are no challenge studies to demonstrate efficacy. I am not aware of any support for efficiency in cross protection for copperheads. It has been shown to not be effective in other types of rattlesnakes. Venom components are complex and vary. Just because there is a vaccine for western diamondbacks does not mean it will work for copperheads. When there is actual evidence of efficacy and not just the production of antibodies, then I would consider using this vaccine.”
For those of us that have dogs with a high prey drive, it may be beneficial to see if there are any snake aversion dog trainers in your area. I have been speaking to Grayson Guyer from the Lost Highway Gundog Kennel in the Winston-Salem, NC area regarding the snake aversion training he offers. Guyer says he creates a “traumatic experience” for dogs using a special collar as he takes them through a course with safely caged live copperheads and rattlesnakes. This creates a negative association with venomous snakes. He says he has had a high success rate with this type of training, and to date none of the graduates from the class have had a negative interaction with venomous snakes since their training. You can learn more about what Grayson Guyer offers by listening to his podcast “Companion Gundog Podcast: Snake Aversion” dated May 16, 2023. He breaks down his methods and rationale for the training. Another good resource regarding snake avoidance training is the “Snake Talk Podcast” hosted by Dr. Chris Jenkins of the Orianne Society, specifically episode 32 dated August 13, 2021. There are also other valuable episodes on Dr. Jenkin’s podcast and I highly recommend it.
Snakes are valuable assets
I have written quite a few words to illustrate the dangers associated with pit vipers, but I wanted to make it abundantly clear that I still firmly believe snakes, including venomous snakes, are valuable assets to both our local ecosystems and the world as a whole. Let’s take a moment to consider the copperhead. We have discussed the negative aspects of their venom, but what if I told you that same venom is giving life. There is a protein in copperhead venom called contortrostatin which inhibits the growth of tumors, slows the growth of blood vessels that allow tumors to grow and spread, and it helps to prevent the spread of cancer cells. Dr. Frank Markland of the University of Southern California says “We injected contortrostatin, a protein found in southern copperhead snake venom, directly into the mammary glands of mice where human breast cancer cells had been injected two weeks earlier. Not only did the injection of this protein inhibit the growth of the tumor—it also slowed angiogenesis, the growth of blood vessels into the tumor that supply it with nutrients and allow the tumor to grow and spread. The protein also impaired the spread of the tumor to the lungs, one site where breast cancer spreads effectively.” Jeff Beane, the curator of reptiles at the NC State Museum of Natural History says “Venom research is really just in its infancy so we don’t know what medical miracles may lie hidden in some of the venoms of these species.”
Aside from their intrinsic value as a living, breathing creature, copperheads also provide a service for humans. We all know that they eat mice and rats (as well as many other “pests”) but did you know a byproduct of that is flea and tick control? When snakes eat nuisance wildlife like mice, they also ingest the mouse’s parasites thereby reducing your risk of coming in contact with those parasites. Mice and rats also destroy property, chew on wires, and other things annoying to humans. Having checks and balances keeps the ecosystem healthy and snakes provide that for pest species.
To sum everything up, if your pet is bitten by a venomous snake be sure to do the following:
- Quickly move them out of the danger zone
- Loosen/remove the collar
- Try to get a positive identification on the snake
- Head to your local emergency vet
- Don’t panic
- And remember snakes are still good to have around
It’s understandable to be leery of unwanted serpents in your yard, you can take steps to reduce the risk of having snakes around by cleaning up debris and brush in your yard, keep bird feeders and surrounding areas tidy, if you see a snake give it a wide berth. Also remember that statistically you’re more likely to be bitten while trying to move or kill a snake, so call a professional or just let the snake go on its way. To paraphrase Dr. Chris Jenkins in regards to what a snake bite kit should look like, “your car keys and cell phone are the most important tools in your kit, get to a vet (or hospital) and let them know you’re coming.” Lastly, remember that the suction devices, tourniquets, and other over the counter snakebite kits are all useless for snakebites and only beneficial to the creator of those products. Time is your enemy in these instances, so getting legitimate medical aid from a veterinarian is critical and time sensitive. Stay calm and stay safe out there.
The Orianne Society – Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Organization – www.Oriannesociety.org
Snake Talk Podcast — https://www.oriannesociety.org/snake-talk/?v=400b9db48e62
Secrets of Snakes: The Science Behind The Myths by Dr. David Steen https://www.davidasteen.com/secrets-of-snakes/
Saving Snakes: Snakes and the Evolution of a Field Naturalist by Dr Nicolette Cagle https://www.upress.virginia.edu/title/5880/
Companion Gundog Podcast (Snake aversion) — https://losthighwaykennels.com/podcast/
SIS1 “Rattlesnake Vaccine to Prevent Envenomation Toxicity in Dogs” Dale M. Wallis, DVM; James L. Wallis, Red Rock Biologics Woodland CA, USA
Herpetologica, 70(1) 2014, 69-76 ©2014 by The Herpetologists’ League, Inc. “Copperheads Are Common When Kingsnakes Are Not: Relationships Between The Abundances of a Predator and One of Their Prey” by David A. Steen et al