Snakes Bite!

by Kris Phillips

Having grown up in the deserts of Southern California and gone to college in Arizona, I’m no stranger to the dangers of venomous snakes out on the trail.

I still remember the first time I ever heard a rattlesnake’s telltale rattle. I was maybe 13 and though I’d never actually heard one before I had a guttural, primal sense of danger. I’d been playing a round of horse-back hide & seek with my brothers when the game came to abrupt stop as we relocated to a safer place to play.

Over the years I’d encountered more than a few snakes and found that most of the time, they just want to be left alone. I remember watching a smallish one wriggle quickly over and around my horses hooves as she meandered obliviously through a Southern Arizona wash.

I’ve marveled from a distance at a sidewinder warming himself on a rock. And one time even chucked a Maglight at my own dog as I saw her go nose to nose with a large slither on the hunt for mice in our Tucson back yard. It wasn’t my brightest moment as I suddenly found myself standing in the dark, no way to know where the dog was as the snake slithered over my only light source twenty feet away. Though given that it didn’t rattle, hindsight suggests it was probably the big bull snake that shared our backyard.

And just after college I was fortunate enough to work for an emergency veterinary clinic doing leading edge research on snakebite treatment in dogs.

So while I’ve always had a healthy respect for the legless creatures, I’ve also had enough encounters to alleviate any phobias about them.

But on a recent hike with a friend we were warned of high rattlesnake presence in the area and got to talking about what to do if we encountered one.

Venomous snakes live in almost every state in the country, though they are definitely more populous in the Southern states. If you spend time outdoors, you should know what to do when you encounter one. 

Your first & best option should be to avoid an encounter to begin with.

  • Keep your dog on a short leash when you’re in snake habitat.
  • Don’t let them stick their nose under bushes or in holes.
    • Because dogs are curious, prey-driven animals they are most often bitten in the face.
  • Avoid areas with dense underbrush or high grass where you can’t see the ground.
  • Avoid putting your hands or feet anywhere you can’t see.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open, you may hear a rattle before you see the snake.

What to do if your dog encounters a snake?

  • First, move them (and yourself) back to a safe distance.
  • If you can safely identify the snake, or take a phone pic, that will be helpful in treating the bite.
    • Size, color, pattern, presence of a rattle are all things to note
    • Just don’t get bitten yourself trying to get a picture of the snake. A coiled snake can strike around two and a half times it’s body length so keep your distance.
  • Check your dog over thoroughly for bites, and keep in mind there could be more than one.
    • Mostly likely bite areas are the face, legs/feet, and belly.
  • If you’re confident your dog has no puncture marks you may consider heading back to safety anyway. And keep an eye out for any swelling, in case you missed something.
  • If your dog was bitten keep them as calm as possible. If you’re out on the trail, carry them out.
    • If you’re unable to safely carry your dog, you may be able to contact park rangers for help.
  • Go immediately to the nearest emergency vet hospital.
    • Treatment will depend on whether it was a dry bite, and what species of snake bit your dog.
    • Snake bite treatment usually requires hospitalization and can be costly.
    • Left untreated snake bites can be excruciating and fatal.

If you are bitten most of the same rules apply.

  • Keep calm
  • Move to a safe distance
  • Identify/ photograph the snake if possible.
  • Call for help.
  • Follow the instructions of your rescuer.
  • If you can’t call out then as calmly as possible make your way to a point where you can call/get help. Avoid the urge to run. You want to minimize the venom traveling through your circulatory system.
  • Proceed directly to a hospital.

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