How to protect your pet, get treated for poison

Vet surgeries are always busy, but during the summer months some pet owners seek help for more than an injured paw or loss of appetite. Now is the time to worry about snake bites.

At 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, Britt Thevelein, a veterinarian and emergency and critical care specialist at the University of Georgia Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Athens, had already seen a pet suffering from a snakebite. The day before she said there were three.

“We see so many snakebites in the summer months, so it’s definitely a common problem,” Thevelein said. Copperheads, recognizable by their kiss-shaped Hershey markings, are the most common biters of their Athens experience, but the range of venomous snakes extends along the coast.

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Britt Thevelein, DVM, DACVECC.  Clinical Assistant Professor of Emergency and Critical Care at the University of Georgia Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Six species of venomous snakes that call Georgia home are Copperheads, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnakes, Pigmy Rattlesnakes, Eastern Coral Snakes, and the Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin).

Snakes are generally more active in summer, Thevelein said, which means more pets are bitten. Most bites are on the paws or lips when pets step on or sniff a snake.

Fortunately, Thevelein said, copperhead bites aren’t usually too bad. She said vets break treatment into two categories: local versus systemic effects, looking at the bite site and then the overall effects on the body.

There is usually swelling where the dog was bitten, pain, and bruising. Throughout the body, a dog may have a drop in blood pressure due to shock. Clotting can become abnormal, so bleeding can occur, and occasionally neurological signs can occur. These more severe, systemic systems are not common in copperhead bites and are more typical of water moccasin or rattlesnake bites.

treatment options

Treatment for bites includes supportive care and sometimes antivenom. Thevelein said antivenom is usually saved for severe cases because the hospital doesn’t have a large reserve and each vial of antivenom costs hundreds of dollars.

In general, Thevelein said if a dog only has symptoms at the site of the bite, they will provide supportive measures such as pain medication, IV fluids and 24-hour monitoring to ensure symptoms don’t appear or worsen.

For the next week after the bite, Thevelein said dog owners should monitor where on their bodies their pets were bitten, particularly to notice discoloration in the skin. Sometimes the skin near the poisoning site can die off.

Overall, Thevelein said that if your dog has been bitten by a snake, it’s definitely worth having your dog checked out by a vet, even if you’re not sure what type of snake it is.

“Oh, and please don’t bring the snake (dead or alive) in for us to examine,” Thevelein said. Since all venomous snakes in Georgia, apart from coral snakes, are pit vipers, these bites are treated with the same antivenom.

What you should know about Copperheads

“In the summer, copperheads come out mostly at night because they don’t like it when it’s too hot any more than we do,” said Whit Gibbons, a herpetologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab.

Snake experts have news many might not want to hear: Copperheads are actually the best scenario for a venomous snake encounter.

Whit Gibbons, a herpetologist at UGA's Savannah River Ecology Lab, holds an indigo snake, a large, nonvenomous snake native to the Southeast.

“The venom of copperheads is much less potent than that of a cottonmouth or a burst rattlesnake,” Gibbons said. Additionally, he says studies have shown that up to 50% of Copperhead bites are “dry bites,” meaning they aren’t injecting venom and are just trying to deter a threat.

Even when they do bite, Gibbons said the copperheads’ venom is the least potent compared to the other venomous snakes native to Georgia. Compared to other venomous snakes, Copperheads are smaller on average and pack less punch.

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Humans are bitten by copperheads more often than any other venomous snake in the United States, Gibbons said, but rarely does anyone die from their bites. However, Gibbons cautioned that while copperheads are less dangerous, some pets may have a stronger reaction to a snakebite.

Gibbons said it’s important to note that there’s a wide variety of snakes, many of which can resemble copperheads, such as gray rat snakes, corn snakes, brown and banded water snakes, and the eastern hognose snake, all of which are nonvenomous.

“Copperheads are beautiful animals that are an integral part of our natural environment. We shouldn’t try to get rid of them any more than we should try to get rid of butterflies, tree frogs or alligators,” Gibbons said. “They are all part of what should be here.”

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (912) 328-4411.

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