Venomous snakes are actually far more adept at rodent control than the average nonvenomous snake. Due to the nature of their venom, they can consume more rodents than other snakes that lack a toxic bite. They are also the only species of snake which can prey on certain squirrels and rodents. When you consider that there are several diseases carried by rodents, such as rabies and the bubonic plague, which are zoonotic, meaning they cross
over to humans, it’s clear that having venomous snakes out in the wild doing their job is important to our own welfare.
Recognizing venomous snakes and knowing how they behave is a key component to avoiding encounters. There are three main groups of pit vipers found in the United States: rattlesnakes,
cottonmouths, and copper heads. Coral snakes, which are related to old world cobras, are native. You should be familiar with the snakes that are local to your area. There are some species that look similar to their venomous cousins, and while it is best to avoid them all, it can be important to be able to positively identify the venomous species.
Pit vipers can be recognized by a defined separation between neck and head. Most nonvenomous snakes are streamlined from head to tail. Pit vipers have a more diamond-shaped head with a defined neck that leads to a thicker body. And unless a rattlesnake is damaged or has a birth defect, it will have a rattle. Despite the urban legend, there are no known populations of rattlesnakes without a rattle. The Western diamondback is the most reactive, has the largest range, and is the number one culprit in venomous bites in the United States. Coral snakes can be a bit harder to recognize, as other species mimic their coloration. Red touching yellow is generally venomous, but not always. It’s best to assume the snake is venomous.
The Myth of Juvenile Snakes
Chances are that you have heard and read that young venomous snakes are more dangerous than adults because they cannot control their venom. This is actually not the case at all. From day one venomous snakes have complete control of their venom glands when they bite and can meter their venom. Also, the smaller the snake, the less venom they have. Size does matter. Behaviorally, they are more likely to give a fully envenomed bite as this is their only means of protection, but this makes them no more or less dangerous than older venomous snakes.
Don’t Get Bit
Large hoofstock such as horses and cows are more commonly bitten than any other domestic animal. However, they have a larger body mass and often don’t suffer the severe effects that a
small animal may experience. Horses have some natural aversion to snakes, but may be bitten if a snake falls in their trough or drinker. A bite on the nose can be deadly to a horse.
Cats may also be bitten by snakes, but due to their nature of disappearing when sick, they are often not treated, and we may not even realize that they have succumbed to a snake bite. However, cats are also more adept at recognizing the danger
of snakes and are less likely to be bitten.
Dogs are more likely than any other pet to be on the receiving
end of a snake bite, as most dogs are curious about small moving animals. The best way to avoid snake bites with a dog is to secure your property with snake proof fencing, avoid
attracting rodents, and to keep your dog secured on a leash when in snake territory.
The best thing to do when you see a snake is to go in the opposite direction. If your dog is off leash, it is imperative that you have a remote sit-and-stay command. Never engage the snake
in any fashion when your dog is present. Throwing rocks, giving chase, or killing the snake may encourage to the dog to engage with snakes in the future.
Aversion Training for Dogs
Most dogs will not learn from being bit. A snake bite is not very painful and so the discomfort, swelling and sickness that follows
does not directly relate in the dog’s mind to the encounter with the snake. For dogs that are likely to come into contact with venomous snakes, aversion training can be a helpful deterrent
to engagement and bites. Through the use of classical conditioning, dogs are taught to identify snakes through visual identification, smell, and sound. Once the dog recognizes the snake, the use of stimulation teaches the dog avoidance.
Be very critical of any aversion training program. Stay away from trainers who seem excessive with correction and also those who do not use venomous snakes for training. (Snakes can be safely and humanely muzzled so they remain harmless.) A dog that is over-corrected will not only have a bad experience, but may also go into a state of learned helplessness, which is not an effective means of training.
Seek out a trainer with a strong background in dog behavior who also has an understanding of snake behavior. Then ask as many questions as possible. The average dog seems to retain the training for 1.5 to 2 years, but every dog is different. Some dogs only need one training session in their lifetimes.
There are trainers who use positive reinforcement methods to teach snake avoidance. However, the dog may then be inclined to seek out snakes for a reward. If there is no one there to offer a reward, the dog may make more approaches and be more likely to be bitten. Once the dog has learned to veer away from snakes,
it can be very effective to reward it for the appropriate behavior.
Managing a Bite
In the unfortunate event of a bite, knowing how to respond and having a plan can save your dog’s life. Know where the nearest vet with antivenom for native snakes is located, and have the number programmed in your phone. If you are hiking in an area that is patrolled by a ranger station, you should have that number as well. If you have a large dog, you may need help carrying
it out. If you call 911 for a dog, you will not get assistance, but a ranger may help you.
Benadryl can slow down the allergic reaction to the bite. Quick dissolving strips or liquid gels that you can puncture and then administer will work the fastest. You can administer 2 milligrams per pound. While this won’t save a dog that has a dangerous bite, it can slow the reaction to the bite down.
When you get to the veterinarian, immediately explain the situation. If you are safely able, snapping a quick photo of the snake, even if it’s blurry, can be helpful. However, the same antivenom is used for all species of pit vipers, so a solid
identification is not critical. Coral snakes require a different
antivenom, which the vet may or may not have available.
Always err on the side of caution. It is not unusual for a bite to be dry, and you may not be sure if your dog was bit. It is better to be safe and have the dog on fluids and under observation until you can be certain.
While we all do the best we can to keep ourselves and our dogs safe, nothing is fool proof. Life happens. Aversion training is like driver’s education: you can teach your loved ones the rules to stay safe, but that doesn’t mean they won’t run a red light or get distracted and make a bad decision. The best defense is knowledge and pre-planning. If you are careful and proactive,
there is no reason to be terrified of venomous snakes.
Should you Vaccinate Your Dog?
At this time there is no definitive scientific proof for or against rattlesnake bite vaccines for dogs, and the company producing the vaccine is proprietary with their information. However, many veterinarians and experts agree that the vaccine can be a help in the instance of a bite. While it doesn’t make dogs immune to the venom, it can buy you precious time to get to the veterinarian in
life-threatening instances. An extra 30 minutes can save your dog’s life. If your dog is vaccinated and then bitten by a venomous snake, he may have a less serious reaction to the snake bite than if he had not been vaccinated. If you have your dog vaccinated, immediately take it to the vet after a snake bite. The vaccine may mask symptoms of the bite and you should not assume the dog is out of danger.
By Sarah Zumhofe