It wouldn’t be summer in North Carolina if we weren’t talking about copperheads.
The state’s unofficial summer mascot is out there everyday, doing its snaky thing: luxuriating in our warm, humid weather; lurking in brush, waiting for the chance to munch on a mouse or lizard; and taking over social media as photos of their Hershey Kiss-marked bodies are shared far and wide with warnings to “beware!”
And it is prudent to take caution around these snakes, the most prolific venomous snake in this part of the state. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by snakes (of all kinds) annually in the U.S. (Of those cases, about five will be fatal.)
The best defense with a copperhead is no offense.
Copperheads are not aggressive, but they are territorial, and will strike in self-defense if they feel threatened. So if you see a copperhead, give it wide berth and leave it alone.
But try telling that to your dog.
Help your dog avoid snakebites
Whether from curiously nosing up to a snake to say hello, plunging face-first into a bush to retrieve a ball, or simply walking down a sidewalk during an evening stroll, dogs seem to find themselves bitten by snakes (particularly copperheads) an awful lot each summer.
It’s impossible to completely eliminate all dog-snake encounters, but there are things we can do to lessen the likelihood that they are bitten. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has this advice for avoiding snake bites:
▪ When walking your dog, always keep it on a leash and monitor its behavior closely.
▪ Don’t let your dog nose around in bushes, thick ground cover, piles of dried leaves or rock crevices — all great places for copperheads to hang out.
▪ Walk on trails where you can see well ahead of you, to make sure there are no snakes in your path (but also be aware that you can encounter a copperhead even on a neighborhood sidewalk).
▪ For cats, the ASPCA suggests keeping them indoors.
Another good piece of advice is to eliminate snake-harboring habitats in your yard, such as woodpiles, tarps, pine straw, dry stack walls and lush, low-growing groundcover.
Symptoms of a snakebite on a dog
If you didn’t see the encounter, there are still ways to determine if your pet was bitten by a snake.
▪ Pain at wound site.
Dr. Steven Marks, associate dean and director of NC State Veterinary Medical Services, said that most snakebites occur on a pet’s limb. If bitten on a limb, the owner will notice the animal “carrying” the leg, because it will be painful.
There will also be swelling and bleeding at the wound site, but depending on the coat of the animal, you may not be able to see the actual bite or the amount of swelling.
Snakebites on the face, nose and tongue are also very common, said Marks, and easier to spot.
If there is a bite on the face or nose, you’ll see rapid, noticeable swelling. You may also be able to make out fang marks.
▪ Salivating or trouble breathing.
Bites on the tongue or torso are more risky, Marks said, because of the blood supply, meaning the pet can get sick faster. In some cases, bites on the tongue or face could actually impede a pet’s normal breathing.
The dog may also become nauseated or will salivate due to pain, particularly if the bite is in or near the mouth.
First thing to do if your dog is bitten by a snake
Sometimes, even after taking precautions, dogs will find themselves on the wrong side of a snake encounter.
Raleigh resident Karin Singleton’s 8-year-old dog, Jake, had one such unfortunate run-in with a snake in late April.
As Singleton worked inside, Jake went into the backyard through the doggie door, then returned a few moments later with one side of his face visibly swollen. Singleton could see puncture wounds near his nose and knew what happened.
After a quick call to her vet, Singleton took Jake in for care right away. Because of his size — Jake is a Great Pyrenees Shepherd mix — his treatment was pretty simple: after a Benedryl injection, some pain medication and antibiotics for the wound, Jake made a quick recovery.
“The same evening, he was already better,” Singleton said. “And two days later, it was like it never happened. It was a very, very positive outcome.”
Singleton did the right thing for Jake, according to Dr. Marks’ advice: she acted quickly, and got him professional care.
Here’s more info from Marks on what to do if your dog has been bitten by a snake.
▪ Stay calm.
First and foremost, don’t panic. Try to keep your pet calm and still.
“Stay calm and keep the pet calm,” Marks said. “If you’re out in the woods and you run to the car, that’s the worst thing you could do. Anything you do that excites the patient allows the venom to circulate more extensively.”
▪ Do not attempt first aid.
Do not attempt any kind of first aid at home. Don’t apply ice, don’t apply a bandage or tourniquet, and do not try to suck out the venom.
“All the things that people see on TV — don’t do any of that,” Marks said.
▪ Get to a veterinarian.
“A hundred percent, see a vet right away,” Marks said. “There should never be a time that you see your dog interact with a snake in any way and you think it’s been bitten or envenomated that you should not go to a veterinarian. You should absolutely go.”
Marks points out that when a dog (or anything else) is bitten by a snake, there is no way of knowing how much venom the snake gives. Sometimes, there’s no venom at all, but there is still a wound to manage. Sometimes, a dog gets a large dose of venom — you just don’t know.
And if you have a small dog / big snake combo, the result could be lethal (though Marks says lethal bites are more common if the dog has encountered a cottonmouth/water moccasin or a rattlesnake).
“No matter what happens, you should see a veterinarian,” Marks said. “There is such a variety of illnesses that can occur, with the extreme being death.”
What treatment to expect for snakebites
Marks says that copperhead bites in dogs will cause the dog to be ill, but the bites are not usually lethal.
Still, a pet bitten by a snake needs care.
At N.C. State’s Veterinary Hospital, which operates a 24/7 emergency clinic for small animals, the dog — or cat — would first get a full physical examination to determine the extent of injury, Marks said. That might include shaving the fur to get a good look at the wound site (you can estimate the size of the snake based on how far apart the fang marks are).
Most veterinarians would also do lab work, Marks said: “a complete blood count and biochemical profile to evaluate systemic wellness and check organ function.”
If the pet is having systemic problems related to low blood pressure, it would get an intravenous catheter with fluids.
Marks said that some venoms can cause blood clotting disorders, and that there is also a lot of pain and swelling associated with the envenomation site.
“Supportive care is the true treatment for snake bites, Marks said. “That would include pain management of some sort — opiates or anti-inflammatories — depending on condition of pet.”
Besides the systemic effects of venom, the pet will also need wound care.
The wound site could become infected and venom can destroy the local tissue, Marks said. Also, the wound will need to drain, so allow it to heal as an open wound and do not bandage it.
What about other treatments?
Marks encourages pet owners to learn about treating snakebites from reputable sources so that they can help make good decisions about their pet’s care.
“An educated pet owner that can be an advocate for the pet is beneficial,” he said.
▪ Should you give your dog Benedryl?
Marks notes that treating a snake bite with an antihistamine, such as Benedryl, is a common practice, but “there is no evidence that antihistamines work” for a snakebite, he said.
“People will say, ‘I did that for my dog and it worked,’ but it is not evidence-based. … But it’s not gonna do any harm,” he said.
▪ Do you treat snakebites with steroids?
This is something Marks does not recommend.
“There is no evidence this works, and it could do some harm,” he said.
▪ Should my dog get snake antivenom?
Marks said it’s uncommon to give antivenom for a copperhead bite.
“The reality is, antivenom is incredibly costly, and copperheads are the least toxic snake compared to a water moccasin or rattlesnake.”
▪ What if my dog is bitten more than once?
Marks says that when it comes to dogs and snakebites, they do seem to see “repeat offenders.”
“They don’t tend to learn,” he said. “It’s a new game every time they see a snake.”
But you shouldn’t necessarily worry about multiple bites spread out over multiple years being more dangerous to your dog’s health, he said.
Marks said “there is no evidence to support” the theory that venom has any sort of cumulative affect on a pet’s health.
“There could be an immune sensitivity to it, but the venom will circulate and be cleared eventually,” Marks said. “There is not a cumulative effect over time.”
What about cats and snakebites?
For whatever reason, Marks said snakebites with cats aren’t as much of a problem as with dogs.
“I don’t want to offend the entire dog world, but cats tend to be smarter and stay away from snakes,” Marks said.
“They also tend to be a little bit more resistant to snake venom than dogs. Maybe the cat immune system functions differently, we don’t have answers to that.”
Bottom line: if your cat or dog is bitten by a snake, Marks recommends seeing a veterinarian.
“At a minimum, call and get a consult,” Marks said. “But my recommendation, with 30 years experience as a veterinary specialist, is better to be safe than sorry.”