A: First, do not panic. Try to stay calm so your dog does not get too excited. Second, try to get a really good look at the snake without getting too close. Is it really a copperhead? Or is it just a brown water snake, corn snake, or other look alike? Most snake bites are from non-poisonous snakes. If you are able to get a picture of the snake on a cell phone or digital camera, it will help your veterinarian confirm the species.
There are two kinds of poisonous snakes in central Virginia. The first is a copperhead and the other is a timber rattlesnake. In the far southeastern portion of Virginia, you can also find water moccasins. All of these snakes are pit vipers, a generally non-lethal type of snake. The poison is produced in thick bulging glands behind the jaw giving the snake’s head a remarkable triangle shape. There are heat sensing glands, or “pits,” below each eye. The poisons produced are called dermonecrotoxins. They work by killing skin and muscle tissue. This type of poison is much less dangerous than the neurotoxins produced by cobras, coral snakes, and other infamous reptiles. However, in a small pet, the pit viper toxins can still be life threatening.
In our area, poisonous snake bites may require multiple visits to the veterinarian to remove necrotic tissue and prevent infection. However, most pets survive the experience. Small pets and pets bitten on or near the face are at higher risk for life-threatening complications. Rarely, a pet may be highly allergic to the snake’s venom and develop a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction.
After a bite there are two priorities. The first is to keep the toxin from spreading as much as possible. To reduce the spread of the toxin, use an ice pack on the area if your dog will let you.
Stay calm to try to keep your pet calm. If your dog is small enough to carry, avoid having him walk around as much as practical. The second priority is to get to a veterinarian right away.
Veterinary treatment for snake bites primarily involves reducing swelling, pain, and infection. Antivenin is also available in some locations, but its use is limited to use in very specific circumstances. The antivenin is known to cause severe life-threatening allergic reactions in a significant number of dogs. Since the vast majority of snake bites are from non-poisonous snakes and since most pit viper bites are non-lethal, the risk of reaction to the treatment should be carefully considered before using antivenin. Most general practices do not stock the expensive antivenin serum, but some emergency clinics do. Antivenin for one dog can cost $1,000 or more!
Even without antivenin, it’s important to seek veterinary care quickly to limit the damage that can be done by the toxins. So remember: document the snake if possible, stay calm, and get to a veterinarian as soon as possible.