North Texas dogs having tough time with snakes

Posted Thursday, Jul. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Linda Howard had to say goodbye to her Rottweiler, Honda, after the dog was bitten three times by a copperhead.

“My vet did everything medical science had to offer, but the poison just shut down her organs,” Howard said.

Howard, who lives in Fort Worth near the southern tip of Lake Arlington, didn’t see the snake. But Dr. Patrick Reeves said that Honda was the third dog he’d treated for a copperhead bite in the first week of June. By the end of June, he had treated another. Three of the four dogs died.

Some area veterinarians said they’ve seen an increase this year in the number of dogs bitten by snakes, and that the incidents began earlier than normal.

“In an average year, I may have one or two copperhead bites and the occasional water moccasin,” Reeves said.

Another veterinarian, Dr. Rocky McKelvey, regional medical director for VCA Animal Hospitals in Texas, said 2013 “seems to be worse than others” for snakebites. I honestly don’t have an explanation for it.”

Animal Emergency Hospital of North Texas in Grapevine has treated 17 snakebites since the first week of March.

“It seemed to come a little early this year, because we didn’t have a cold winter or a hard freeze,” said Dr. Libby Ramirez of the Grapevine clinic.

Bites that occur early in the season tend to be worse, Ramirez said.

“The snakes have more venom,” she said. “Also, you get the juvenile snakes that don’t have as much control when they bite.”

Compared with dogs, and despite their legendary curiosity, cats rarely fall victim to snakes, McKelvey said.

“Dogs see something moving in the grass and they go investigate it,” he said.

Veterinarians see a lot of nonvenomous snake bites, McKelvey said. Usually, the culprits are water snakes or rat snakes. Nonvenomous bites can lead to nasty infections, but they don’t require antivenin.

Most of the bites seen at the Grapevine emergency clinic are venomous, and the most common culprit is a copperhead, Ramirez said. Venomous bites are often obvious.

“There’s swelling at the site of the bite — usually the face or a limb — bruising at the site of the bite and changes in blood work,” Ramirez said. “You can also have vomiting and collapse — the dog becomes shocky, weak and can’t get up.”

Snakebites are unpredictable, Ramirez said.

“Some resolve without treatment and others can be fatal,” she said. “We don’t have good predictors for which bites are the ones to worry about. We urge that owners take every snakebite seriously and seek veterinary care. The common treatment is intravenous fluids, antibiotics and pain control.”

When a snake injects so much venom into its victim that antivenin is needed, the treatment is a $700-per-bottle product made for dogs, said Dr. Roderick Gant, medical director at VCA Fort Worth Animal Medical Center.

“The last one I treated, I used two bottles, one each day,” he said.

Some owners get their dogs vaccinated each spring with Crotalus Atrox Toxoid, which Gant said is good against all the viper species in North Texas and costs about $17.

“It decreases the severity of the snakebite and helps them heal a little faster,” he said.

While many of the bites seen at VCA hospitals this year have been by nonvenomous snakes, all of the venomous bites have been by copperheads, McKelvey said.

“One of the hospitals that sees a lot of emergencies had three dogs from one family [in the Mesquite area] and all of them had been bitten by copperheads,” he said.

Howard said she’s keeping a close watch on a new friend she adopted from the Humane Society June 28. Jackie is a 3-year-old Rottweiler who was found under a collapsed house after the May 20 tornadoes in Oklahoma.

“She follows me from room to room and never leaves my side,” she said.

Protecting your dog

To protect their dogs from copperheads, owners should eliminate whatever will attract rodents. That means:

• Keep back yards clean.

• Empty and clean outdoor food bowls daily.

• Don’t use continuous pet feeders outdoors.

• Eliminate potential copperhead shelters like brush and wood piles.

• Keep dog on leash in parks that have wildlife areas.

•  Train dogs to stay away from snakes.

Sources: Brett Johnson, Urban Wildlife Biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Shelly Meeks, assistant shelter manager for the Humane Society of North Texas.

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

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