Our two dogs were “assisting” me pick grapes by nudging and shining clusters with their moist noses, as if to show me where the ripe ones were. Suddenly Felicia bared her teeth and was off like a bolt of lightning, Justice in hot pursuit of whatever she was after—another dang rabbit, I presumed. But almost simultaneously, several things blurred together: Felicia spun in her tracks about 60 feet away, having apparently overrun her prey; a buzz sounded, she lunged, and I yelled, “No!” as loudly as I could. Rattlesnake!

America’s poisonous snakes include the coral snake and pit vipers (rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths). Coral snakes, found mostly in coastal areas from the Carolinas to Mexico, are colorful, banded, small snakes with powerful venom. Similar non-venomous snakes can be distinguished by remembering rhymes: “Red and black, toss it back; red and yellow hurt a fellow.” When red and yellow touch each other, beware. You and your dog can be in some danger, though not as much as from pit vipers.
One reason is that, despite the greater power of the venom, the coral snake injects it by chomping on its victims with a chewing motion over a period of time. Dogs and other animals almost always shake the snake loose immediately after being bitten, and very little of the poison gets into the system. There are many beneficial snakes of similar color, but the red is separated from the yellow by black or brown. Be nice to these; they’ll help keep vermin down.

Pit vipers get this appellation from a sensory depression below the eyes toward the nostrils, but don’t try to get close enough to see it on a live specimen! Instead, rely on these other signs: a more wedge-shaped or triangular head than other snakes have, and a habit of shaking the tail when alarmed. Sometimes they don’t do this, and sometimes harmless garter snakes, hog-nosed snakes, and rat snakes (often called chicken snakes) will bluff you by vibrating the dry leaves with this action. While the following doesn’t appear in any of the field guides I have, my own experience indicates that rattlesnakes are far more likely to form a tight coil in strike readiness, while other, harmless, species will try to escape or remain fairly extended.

A fairly sure sign of a poisonous nature is the vertical pupil, although here again a very few harmless snakes have this feature (unlike the vast majority of round-pupil non-venomous snakes). Unless you are holding the snake down by the neck with a hoe or a long, strong stick, you may not be able to safely get close enough to tell the difference. Cottonmouths are so called because of a frequent habit of rearing a defiant head when aroused, showing a wide-open, white interior mouth lined with teeth. They are often called “moccasins,” though this term should not be used as it confuses them with non-poisonous snakes whose waters they may share. Adult cottonmouths are 2 to 4 ft long, are bold while other water snakes flee, and are found in ditches, creeks, rivers, etc. of southern lowlands and the Ozarks, often cohabitating with other varieties of pit vipers.
Their color is gray, with a hint of green or brown.

Copperheads are the more dry land or highland version, with varying markings, mostly an hourglass pattern (uneven from the head down the first third of the back, then evenly matched the rest of the way) on brown or coppery-colored skin. They are smaller, growing up to three feet, generally, and inhabit most of the eastern U.S. from Texas and Kansas to Massachusetts and Georgia, but they don’t appreciate the very cold climes of Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, and the like.

The most varied of the pit viper subfamily are the rattlesnakes. The giant three-to-six-foot Diamondback is a fearsome and fearless denizen of the southwest and, as the eastern variety, of the Mississippi-to-Carolinas coastal regions. Timber rattlers are found in the Midwest, Mid-south, and Mid-Atlantic with a subspecies, the Canebrake Rattlesnake, further south. We live in what the maps give as the overlapping range shared by the Canebrake and the Timber, where the Tennessee River dips into northern
Alabama, but on our side of the river we’ve only seen the smaller (3 to five feet, sometimes longer) Canebrake, except for one enormous Timber that must have gone for a long swim and become lost on the South side.

Both have the generic and species name, Crotalus horridus, a fitting description. The Canebrake has a reddish brown stripe along its spine, extending from its neck along for a third to half of its length. Both subspecies have dark spotted-to-banded markings, and the Timber is sometimes seen in a “black” phase, its markings hard to see in the shade.
The characteristic buzz that Felicia and Justice ignored is caused by the dry rattle segments raised and vibrated by an alarmed rattler. Sometimes no warning is given or heard. Only a week earlier I had been mowing some tall grass and fortunately was walking slower than usual when suddenly, between my mower and my feet, there appeared a 20-in-diameter tight coil of rattlesnake staring straight at me. One more step and I’d have landed right on an animal of most unforgiving nature. Swiftly backing up the 22-in rotary mower, I waited a couple or three seconds until the snake “hit the fan” with loud chunking sounds, and pieces were strewn for yards around. This day, though, the dogs were not so fortunate.

Felicia had been caught hard on the muzzle and was shaking the rattler loose when Justice caught up with her. All seemed to happen in the same split second. Justice was suddenly leaping backward, high in the air, a momentarily-straightened snake stuck up at him, while Felicia was still shaking her head.

About this time my hollering must have registered on them, for they stayed back. Maybe they listened better to the snake, come to think of it. I led them quickly into the pen and closed the gate, then ran into the kennel building for the bush hook—a long-handled, heavy, broad-bladed tool used in the country for cutting through honeysuckles and small trees or big branches. Returning to find the rattler again coiled to strike and buzzing with that unmistakable sound which raises the hair on your neck if you’ve ever heard it before, I brought the blade down and sliced the Canebrake into several segments. Later that night I laid out the pieces to measure about three feet of them, maybe a bit more, then skinned the two biggest portions. Three days later I fried the marinated tenderloin strips and revengefully ate the delicious result. The dinner gave me three literary ideas: I would write something for dog people, another piece for my monthly newspaper column, and thirdly, a poem.

In the meantime, we had two dogs to treat. The old-time recommendation of cutting the wound and sucking out the poison is no longer routinely given. Many authorities now say the delay and incision present more risk of infection and additional trauma than potential benefit. While the venom itself is inactivated by stomach acids (in case you swallow some, snake saliva is chock full of clostridia bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms), quick treatment is the key to successfully fending off both these bacteria and the effect of the venom’s ingredients. If the bite is on a limb, a tourniquet left in place for up to an hour can help slow absorption into and flow through the lymphatic system, but in most snake-bites-dog stories, the head of the dog is involved, so a tourniquet is impractical. Furthermore, suction is extremely difficult if at all possible.

Felicia’s two fang punctures, for example, were midway between her eyes and nose, with one atop the nasal bone and the other over her upper carnassial teeth, on the cheek. Justice was bit on the flew (lower side lip).

Good first-aid may include application of an ice pack (if you already have one in the freezer or can prepare one in a minute), plus keeping the patient quiet. The ice pack should be wrapped in a light towel to prevent frostbite. We didn’t fix up an ice bag, figuring that driving time to the veterinary clinic was long enough (at least 20 minutes). We told the dogs to get into the back seat of the car and lie down, though the best that two adult German Shepherds can do in today’s family vehicles is take turns sitting and lying down. Our veterinarian was prepared, having been contacted by phone first, and kept the clinic open for us. Intravenous injections of anti-venin and steroids were the first medication administered when we arrived.

Venom of the pit vipers contains some neurotoxins, but these are not the major ingredients as they are in many other types of poisonous snakes, nor do they present the major problem, giving only some little anesthetic effect to tissues some small distance from the bite, if any. Only if the snake has made a direct and unlucky injection into a vein would there be an immediate risk of fatality. Of course, many factors weigh on these generalities: the size and health of the dog (and of the snake), how long ago the snake had spent some venom on a mouse meal, how much fat the dog has under his skin, etc. The predominant fractions of rattlesnake venoms are enzymes and related proteins. These help dissolve or “digest” blood and cell proteins; this effect can be seen on the surface in a few days in a process called necrosis, a dying, sloughing, and scabbing of tissue in the bite area, but there is more that takes place beyond the reaches of your sight. The bacteria mentioned earlier exacerbate the wound and the system, hence the use of antibiotics orally or by injection to combat infection.

Death comes to the dog that has been bitten by a poisonous snake, only if he has not been given prompt treatment or if the combination of small, weak dog and large, powerful snake existed. Most medium-to-large dogs pull through with little long-term effect but, if unknown or otherwise ignored, a snakebite’s enzymes and neurotoxins can damage vital organs such as kidneys and liver, while bacterial sepsis adds its own poisons to the various systems and organs as well as to the local lesion. The biggest problem is swelling, and this is fought with antihistamines and corticosteroids, though both have their proponents and opponents. Since the antivenin is usually of non-canine origin (horse, etc.), a steroid helps ward off allergic reactions/rejection to the serum. Steroids are a great help in reducing swelling, and I gave each of the dogs a shot of Prednisone and Betasone when I brought them home after two days’ hospitalization. They also had three days of antihistamines, chloramphenicol antibiotic, and Lasix, a diuretic.

Twenty-four hours after having been bitten, the dogs had considerable swelling resembling a giant water-filled dewlap. They had passed the one-day critical period and prognosis was good. The outlook would have been considerably less bright if four hours or more had elapsed between bite and therapy. Forty-eight hours after the incident, the dogs still looked as if they had goiter, a large neck pouch being obvious on each of the animals. Seventy-two hours later, the flews were only about twice the normal thickness, but recovery was clearly on the march.

If you witness the incident, try to determine if the snake is poisonous; if you are sure it is not, you may wish to keep the dog under observation at home, but if swelling begins, assume it was venomous. If you kill it, handle the head carefully (it can still bite after being severed and dead) and take the whole thing to the veterinarian with you and the dog. If you don’t have a piece of rubber tubing, use a strip of cloth for a tourniquet on a limb, applying it a few inches above the wound, tightly enough to barely allow a finger squeezed under it. Place ice cubes in a plastic bag, wrap it with a dish towel, and hold it to the wound while an assistant telephones and drives you to a veterinarian. If you are alone, don’t waste time with the ice—drive with both hands on the wheel and both headlamps and flashers on.

Realize that your veterinarian might not have a lot of experience with snakebites, but that he has excellent reference books that he will have consulted right after your call.
However much his procedure varies from someone else’s, do what he says, for there is minor disagreement among members of the profession as to whether antihistamines are beneficial or synergistic with venom, whether steroids should be used, whether an incision should be made, whether alcohol should be avoided in cleansing the wound, and whether painkillers should be given. Feel free to express your doubts and ask questions, but be tactful about it and trust the doctor.

Fred Lanting

Fred Lanting is an internationally respected show judge, approved by many registries as an all-breed judge, has judged numerous countries’ Sieger Shows and Landesgruppen events, and has many years experience as one of only two SV breed judges in the US. He presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Gait-&-Structure, HD and Other Orthopedic Disorders, and The GSD. He conducts annual non-profit sightseeing tours of Europe, centered on the Sieger Show (biggest breed show in the world) and BSP.

Books by Fred Lanting