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The warm winter has created some challenges for those who like to spend time in the outdoors, with an extended allergy season likely the cause with the broadest range of effects. For prescribed fire managers, and turkey hunters, the threat of encountering a snake can be mitigated somewhat by wearing snake boots. On April 4, during a simple afternoon dog walk with my English Setter bird dog, a chance encounter with a small canebrake rattler admitted me into the unenviable club of attending to a canine under the influence of snake venom.
The subject of any rattlesnake bite is a serious one, so I want to share first that my hunting dog survived this encounter, with the assistance of emergency veterinary care. At 9-years of age, my bird dog is a veteran of countless quail hunts in piney woods, where the chance of wildlife encounters are very high. However, this afternoon walk in Western Colleton County was along a well-worn trail not far from the house at our family farm. We literally had walked by the same spot hundreds of times over the years.
A few blades of early spring grass conspired to make a clump of cover that was just big enough to make this small rattler feel concealed. The dog was walking ahead of me, and was likely on top of the snake before either of them realized it. When Chester performed a circus jump, moving upward and backward at the same time, I peered into the grassy patch and visually confirmed my worst fear that a rattlesnake had just struck my dog. What to do now?
In that instant, your life switches into family crisis mode. The dog was holding up his front left paw like it was no longer functional, so he was stationary. I fumbled around searching for a nearby branch, and I clubbed the rattler with it, intent on making a photo in case medical attention required positive snake identification. It was still warm out at 7 p.m. when I had to lift my 57-pound companion and carry him back down the trail to the house. I had to stop and catch my breathe a time or two, and was a sweaty mess by the time we got indoors about 15-minutes later.
The dog had been somewhat responsive while I carried him, but once inside he sprawled on the kitchen floor and appeared to be knocked out cold. It was hard for my eyes to see the usually keen English Setter, reduced to shallow breathing and unresponsive to the food or water I offered. I utilized my smart phone to reach out to family members that loved this dog to get them to call around and locate and after hours vet for me. I also called on friends including a plantation manager, a dog trainer, hunting buddies and anyone that I thought might be able to guide me through these precious minutes filled with so much uncertainty.
Most of the information that filtered back to me via phone call, voice message and text was helpful. Some common sense information is to keep the dog inactive after a rattlesnake bite, which doesn’t allow the venom to circulate as quickly. Giving the dog a dose of benedryl may help, but in my case the dog could not swallow so it made no sense to lodge a pill in his throat. With the emergency vet located an hour away, I had reservations about if the dog would still be alive, but one thread of unison from all my messages was to go to the vet and know that any expenses will be going towards saving a member of our family.
It is common for the rattlesnake bite location to become very swollen, revealing two fang marks and some blood. My dog was bitten on the leg, but I could not locate any true bite markings. Upon arrival at the vet, they shaved his leg and revealed a bite mark, and ran a blood smear test that came back 100% positive for envenomation. The effects of rattlesnake venom can progress to affect the respiratory system and so more tests revealed that the clotting time of the red blood cells was essentially still normal. If the test results were different, then anti-venom could have been administered, but in this case the dog never required that treatment.
Around midnight I departed the vet and left the dog overnight for IV fluids and close observation. Seeing the dog drink some water before I left gave this lifelong outdoorsman a distinct impression that he would be a survivor of this chance encounter with a small rattlesnake, which didn’t measure more than a foot in length and didn’t possess any rattles. When I brought the dog home at noon the next day it wasn’t hard to follow the doctor’s prescription for rest, since the dog essentially slept peacefully the next 24-hours, adding this experience to his cache of doggie dreams accrued from a life spent in the field.
Venomous snakes tend to carry some myths with them and in this case I heard two common ones. First, that small rattlesnakes are dangerous because they can’t control the amount of venom they release, and second that a snake emerging in spring after hibernation may have stronger venom. I called upon Heyward Clamp at the Edisto Serpentarium and he quickly debunked these two myths, saying that young rattlesnakes can control the amount of venom released. And he added that snake venom is not stronger in spring but rather that the rattler may have produced venom reserves over winter, so their first strike of spring has potential to release a larger amount of venom.
“All dogs seem to have a very high resistance to snake venom,” said Clamp. “A lot of times it causes sever swelling in the affected area, but they can live through it. The canebrake rattlesnake has a complex venom that includes neuro-toxin, which can cause the dog to appear knocked out, as you described your English Setter.” Of course, not all dogs survive a venomous snakebite, and Clamp relayed his happiness that Chester is OK. Even though Chester is a hunting dog, there are many that know him as a handsome and loving pet, and I don’t think anyone will view him the same way now that he is a survivor of one of nature’s ultimate tests.
Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com