Keeping Dogs Safe from Snake Bites

Encounters with venomous snakes can end badly for dogs—here’s what to keep in mind
By Sandra Roth, August 2019

Okay, so who goes to the desert and hikes up a mountain of rocks when snakes are just coming out to enjoy the first days of spring? Our team, as it happens—Crystal and I, both avid hikers and mine explorers, and our canine traveling companions: Crystal’s Poo, a six-year-old Mastiff, and Clay, a seven-year-old Labrador, and my Harper, a three-year-old German Shepherd.

It was a beautiful sunny day in April, with a soft breeze and a perfect temperature. We were excited about our first hike of the season, just as the snakes were no doubt excited about their first days of sunbathing. Without realizing it, we already had a problem.

A mine at the top of a rocky slope caught our attention, and we were determined to climb up to it. Filled with anticipation and accompanied by three excited dogs, we started the hike. Halfway up, Poo decided he wanted to take a break, and stopping abruptly, he began to sit down. Crystal tapped him on the rear. “Oh, no, it isn’t time to rest yet.” And that’s when she saw the baby rattler coiled up and ready to strike. “Call Poo, call Poo!” she yelled, but it was too late. Poo backed up and the snake sprang forward, sinking its fangs into Poo’s foot.

Crystal dashed down the mountain with Poo in tow, praying they would make it to the vehicle. They did, and just in time. As soon as Poo got into the van, he collapsed and didn’t move again. We were thankful he had made it that far; Poo is a big dog and it would not have been an easy task carrying him down the hill.

Time was our enemy. A poisonous snakebite is always an emergency, and as so often seems to be the case when something like this happens, it was Sunday and we were in a sparsely populated area. We finally found an open vet office in Boulder City, Nev., two hours away. Even better, they had the antivenin, which a lot of vets don’t carry. We knew that if we could get Poo to the vet within a four-hour post-bite window, he would have a 90 percent chance of survival.

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It took almost two hours to get there. Poo didn’t move when the technicians lifted him from the van and carried him into the building. Then we learned that the antivenin was still frozen. It took about an hour to thaw it out, at which point, Poo was given two vials over an extended period.

Day two after the bite, Poo was discharged from the vet hospital. Still in critical condition, he went home with five medications and instructions to keep him quiet. His foot was swollen to the size of a stretched balloon, and the pressure had caused the skin on his toes to open and bleed. With all the medications and the trauma to his body, rest was no problem. For more than a week, he barely stirred.

Day eight after the bite, the swelling had gone down a little. Then Poo had a seizure, and it may not have been the first. After taking a few days off to care for him, Crystal had returned to work, so she had no idea if there had been others. All the vet could suggest was to watch him.

The horrible reality of a poisonous snakebite is a very sick dog in a lot of pain as well as a substantial financial liability: more than $2,000, plus numerous aftercare visits and the antivenin, which was $500 per vial. Then there were the blood tests required to make sure his organs were okay, since snake venom attacks vital organs. (Thankfully, all of Poo’s were in good condition.)

There are emotional realities as well. The other two dogs went into a depression. In the van, Harper loves to bark out the window and Clay likes to fight for the window. On that horrible day, both dogs went to the back of the van and didn’t move. At home, Clay slept in Poo’s private sleeping quarters, which he never does.

We were emotionally traumatized too. There was our own guilt —we knew it was snake season, knew rock climbing was not a sound choice, yet we did it—and our fear of going hiking again, and that we would never explore another mine.

Then we learned about snake avoidance training, which in our area, starts at $65, far less than the $3,000 Crystal ultimately spent treating the bite. Poo, Clay and Harper are now signed up for training, and we know it will be well worth the cost, because we want to (safely) get out there again, and so do Poo, Clay and Harper. Especially Poo.

Sandra Roth lives and writes in Moreno Valley, Calif., and works in forensic mental health for the State of California.

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