(The snake pictured above is a non-venomous Banded Water Snake, often mistaken for the venomous Cottonmouth.)
Venomous snakes are a common problem for dogs. Dogs are naturally curious, and like to put their face and nose very close to what they are inspecting. As one could imagine, this can easily cause a nasty bite on the face, the most common place for a snake to bite a dog.
There are several tips to help avoid serious issues with venomous snakes, and some things that must happen once your dog is bitten. To help avoid snakes in the first place, thinking about the natural biology can help us avoid interactions.
Snakes tend to hide, so that they may ambush their prey. They love piles of rocks, sticks, leaves, downed trees, junk, etc. These are the types of areas that attract rodents as well, one of their main sources of prey. Other things that attract rodents such as water or feed storage will likely also attract snakes.
Snakes are cold-blooded, meaning their body temperature is dependant on the environmental temperature. As such, most snake bites occur in Spring, Summer, or Fall. In the summertime, it is so hot, that snake bites tend to go down, as the snakes tend to only emerge at night after it has cooled off some (snakes are equally prone to overheating, since they cannot regulate their temperature). Knowing this, keeping your dogs on-leash after dark and before sunrise in the summertime can help you keep your dog from exploring areas that harbor snakes.
In Spring and Fall, bites are much more likely to happen in daytime hours, as the moderate daytime temperatures entice the snakes to come out and bask in the sun to keep their temperatures higher. Avoiding areas that harbor rodents or snakes during daylight hours becomes more important at these times of year.
Aside from modifying your outdoor habits, there are training courses that teach dogs to avoid snakes based on their scent. As you likely know, dogs’ sense of smell is very keen, and they are able to differentiate the species of snakes based on their scent. The training programs associate something unpleasant to the dog with the scent of the snake. Most of these use a shock collar to discourage the dog from going near the snake. Many people have issues with the use of a shock collar, but many also feel it is justified if the alternative may be a venomous snake bite. This training is specific to the species of snake; a dog taught to be fearful of rattlesnakes, may still approach Cottonmouth. As such, there are usually several snake-aversion courses available, depending on the types of snakes that pose a threat in that area.
The Rattlesnake vaccine is another option, that will help a dog’s immune system handle the venom of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. The theory is that the vaccine creates an immunity to the snake’s venom, which allows the dog’s body to break-down the venom once it enters the bloodstream. Then reduces the amount of venom, which in turn, should reduce the damage from the venom. When we vaccinate against Rattlesnake venom, it does not eliminate the need for medical care; however, it hopefully should reduce the severity of the damage and duration of treatment.
We talk hypothetically about this vaccine, as it has never been tested. However, we know other mammal species react appropriately to this sort of vaccine, and real-world experience seems to support that the vaccinated dogs recover better and faster than dogs who have not received the vaccine.
The level or degree of immunity is also tied to how long it has been since the vaccine was administered, meaning it has it’s strongest protection in the first few months after giving it. Because of this, we should vaccinate right before “rattlesnake season” which typically begins when things warm up in March, and then booster immunity about 6 months later in later summer so that they have maximal protection during early fall when the snakes begin to come out during daylight again.
If your dog does get bitten, seek veterinary care immediately. If possible, find a location that has rattlesnake antivenin if your dog was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snake venom causes multiple problems throughout the body, and as these problems accumulate, can lead to organ shut down. Don’t try to suck out the venom, or apply a tourniquet, as these don’t help, and may even hurt. Most common problems associated with venomous snake bites are: pain and swelling, tissue damage and necrosis at the site of the bite, blood clotting disorders, blood cell damage, nausea, and infections at the site of the bite. Not all of these things can be treated or cured, but we can definitely help reduce the problems and help with quality of life.
Local Animal Hospitals with Antivenom
Southwest Vet – (512) 696-3980 – 8731 W. SH 71 Ste 100 Austin, TX 78745
Dripping Springs Animal Hospital – (512) 858-4787 – 1520 E. Hwy 290 Dripping Springs, TX 78620
Austin Veterinary Emergency & Specialty (open 24 hours) – (512) 343-2837 – 7300 Ranch Rd 2222, Austin, TX 78730
Austin Vet Care @ Central Park (open 24 hours) – (512) 961-3059 – 4106 N. Lamar Blvd. Austin, TX 78756