Did you know that with warmer weather, we see a rise in snake activity this time of year? These snakes can become a significant risk for our pets, with the biggest concern coming from Copperheads. While outside and active, our pets may inadvertently startle or provoke a snake, which explains why most bites are on the front legs or the face. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the appearance of Copperheads so you know what to look out for. These snakes have an overall brown or copper coloration with distinctive dark hourglass-shaped bands down the length of the body. The head is spade-shaped, meaning the back of the head is wider than the neck due to venom glands in the head.

What do you do if your pet is bitten by a snake? We recommend you immediately call our hospital or an after-hours emergency clinic to let them know you are on the way. Each case poses certain challenges because we have no way to know if or how much venom was injected. Also, venom is composed of various toxins (myotoxins, cytotoxins, hemotoxins, etc.), and this composition can vary significantly even within the same species, so the impact of a snake bite is unpredictable.

In general, we worry more about smaller pets and older pets as they tend to be more susceptible to profound consequences from Copperhead bites. Antivenin is available for these types of bites, but it has the potential to be quite costly. This antivenin has the potential for significant side effects but may be considered for those more vulnerable pets and those that are displaying severe symptoms. These symptoms can include rapid tissue swelling (especially around the neck/throat), shock, abnormal bleeding (coagulopathy), cardiorespiratory abnormalities, among others. Many pets will only develop localized pain and swelling, in which case the risks associated with antivenin may be greater than the benefits.

Symptoms of envenomation typically develop within 30 minutes to 2 hours but can be delayed due to variability in how rapidly the venom is absorbed from the tissues. Initial symptoms of a localized reaction include significant pain, swelling, and bruising, with or without visualizing the bite wound. Over the coming hours to days, worsening tissue damage and even necrosis with sloughing of tissue can occur. Baseline bloodwork (+/- in-house coagulation testing, if available) may be obtained on initial presentation and then reassessed as needed. Close monitoring is important because of delayed effects of the venom, and treatment recommendations will vary based on individual needs. Please let us know if you have any questions about snake envenomation, especially in regard to how we assess, treat, and manage these bites. Stay safe out there.

Take care,
Dr. Shari Nath