By: Cate Burnette
With the mild temperatures of our Texas winters, many pet parents enjoy getting out in nature when we’re not fighting off the mosquitoes and sweat of summer. We especially love taking our furry companions along for the fun. When out hiking along the trails, fields and waterways of our state, diligent pet owners need to be aware of one of the hidden dangers to ourselves and our pets … snakes.
Even though snakes cannot tolerate extreme cold and will normally hibernate in the winter, emerging from their dens in late February or early March in Texas, when the weather is warm and the sun is out, some snake species can be found lounging in their natural habitats. A snakebite is something we all hope our pets will never suffer, but unfortunately they are a very real problem for pets and owners in Texas. Texas is home to a variety of venomous snakes whose bites can potentially harm pets, so it is essential to recognize dangerous snakes and know what to do if your pet is bitten.
Venomous or Non-Venomous?
Most non-venomous snakes have a large smooth cap over the top of the head past the eyes, divided scales on the underside of the tail, no pits, and no long fangs. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths are all venomous pit vipers, and have a pit between and slightly below the eye and nostril. Pit vipers also have long movable fangs, a ‘cat’s eye’ pupil, undivided scales under the tail, and a large triangular-shaped head with a small shiny cap over the nose.
Melissa Kaplan, author of the Reptile Series, suggests learning about the snakes in your area. Familiarize yourself with what the local snakes look like by reading through a field guide of reptiles and amphibians for your area. Compare the drawings and photos of the local venomous snakes with the non-venomous species so that you can remember what they look like, in general. A single species of snake may have a wide range of colors and patterns.
Types of Texas Snakes
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, pet parents need to watch out for 4 types of venomous snakes in this state: copperheads, rattlesnakes, coral snakes and cottonmouths (also called water moccasins).
Copperheads have a copper-colored head with bands of brown and/or gray running around the body. They easily blend with the foliage on forest floors and, because of their camouflage, usually bite when they are accidentally picked up or stepped/sat on. Copperheads bite rather than strike.
Rattlesnakes tend give warning before striking, usually ‘rattling’ before they hit. But if they are totally surprised, that warning may be nonexistent. Nocturnal animals, they hunt for prey such as mice, rats and rabbits at night. Nine species of rattlesnake live in Texas; the most common rattlesnakes being the Western Massasauga rattler that lives in prairies from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle, the Timber rattler that resides in east Texas, and the Western Diamondback that can be found in the north, central, southern and western areas of the state.
Coral snakes are shy and rarely seen in Texas, with only one species native to the state. This snake shows bands of red, yellow and black colors – in that order. Non-aggressive and with a small mouth, this snake hides from interaction with humans and other animals, but its bite can be very dangerous.
The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, typically stays close to the water found in ponds, lakes, ditches, swamps, and canals in east and central Texas and in the waterways along the Gulf Coast. A very muscular snake with dark-colored scales, the cottonmouth can grow to nearly 6 feet long and can be very defensive and sometimes aggressive. They eat fish, frogs and small mammals and, when threatened, open their mouths to show their fangs. The term ‘cottonmouth’ comes from the white color of the inside of the mouth. They can bite underwater, so hikers, swimmers, fishermen and their dogs should be very careful when playing or swimming in the lakes and streams of this area.
Symptoms of Snake Bite
Most pets are bitten on the head, muzzle or limbs and will display similar signs in the event of a venomous snakebite. However, a few of those symptoms vary from snake to snake. Fluctuations in symptomology can make a difference in your dog’s veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Listed below are the signs of bites by those venomous snakes that live in Texas.
- Teeth marks
- Inflamed, red area around teeth marks
- Sudden behavioral changes
- Excessive drooling and foaming at the mouth
- Diarrhea and incontinence
- Sudden collapse, seizures and paralysis
- Puncture wounds (may be bleeding)
- Immediate, severe pain
- Restlessness, panting and drooling
- Muscle tremors
- Lethargy, weakness, sometimes collapse
- Neurological signs including depressed respiration and heartbeat
3) Coral Snake
- No pain after initial bite
- Weakness and muscle spasms
- Diarrhea and urinary incontinence
- Convulsions leading to coma
- Paralysis of respiratory muscles leading to labored breathing and, without treatment, eventual death
4) Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin
- Instant pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Trouble breathing
- Reduced blood pressure
- Skin discoloration
- Increased thirst
What To Do If Your Dog Is Bitten & What Not To Do
Your dog needs to get to your veterinarian as soon as possible, so the PetMd website recommends the following first aid treatments while on the way to the clinic.
- Try to identify the snake by taking note of its size, color patterns and the presence or absence of a rattle at the end of the tail. Do NOT attempt to kill or capture the snake.
- Look the dog over carefully for fang marks, noting that there may be more than one bite wound.
- If bitten on a leg, wrap a constricting band on the affected limb snugly at a level just above the bite wound (on the body side of the wound). This band could be fashioned of a shirtsleeve or other fabric and should be snug but not excessively tight. The compression around the limb will slow the spread of the venom. The dog may lose the limb but that is better than losing his life. Note: This should NOT be tight enough to cut off blood flow and be considered a tourniquet.
- Keep the dog as quiet and warm as possible.
If your dog is bitten, there are some things you should NOT do.
- Do not put any sort of tourniquet on your pet.
- Do not apply ice.
- Do not make any cuts into the skin and do not try to suck the poison out.
- Do not apply a compression bandage to the wound.
Treatment of Snakebites
Once you get your dog to a veterinary hospital, your veterinarian will advise you on the best tests and treatment for your pet based on his/her condition. Your veterinarian may want to look at a blood smear to help determine if it was in fact a venomous snake that bit your pet. Often, but not always, the red blood cells of an animal that was bitten will look spiky when viewed under a microscope. Since snake venom can cause a bleeding disorder, your veterinarian may want to test your pet’s clotting times. Other tests that may be performed include a CBC, a chemistry panel, a urinalysis, blood pressure, and an EKG. Your veterinarian will treat your pet based on how severely he or she is affected. Treatments may include pain medication, intravenous fluids, anti-histamines, steroids, antibiotics, and anti-venom.
Not all snakebites require anti-venom. Anti-venom is useful in cases where your pet’s clotting times are affected. The anti-venom can help prevent bleeding disorders and reduce the amount of swelling. It is best if anti-venom is administered within 4 to 6 hours once a pet is bitten. Pets can have a serious allergic reaction to anti-venom. Your veterinarian can advise you if he/she thinks your animal would benefit from this treatment. Your vet may also take precautions to minimize the chance of an allergic developing if this medication is administered.
The best way to avoid snakebites in Texas is to know when you and your pet are most likely to come in contact with a snake and use appropriate caution. Snakes are coldblooded creatures that are most active during periods of warm temperatures, usually anytime the temperature creeps above 80ºF.
Most venomous snakes found in Texas frequent tall grasses, bushes and woodpiles, though water moccasins prefer proximity to water. When you take your dog outside, keep it on a leash and away from such places. Also, keep your yard from becoming a good snake hideout by keeping grass short and shrubs trimmed.
There is a rattlesnake vaccine available for dogs that live in areas inhabited by an abundance of rattlers, however, there is little veterinary evidence as to how much protection the vaccine actually affords from rattler venom. Typically, the anti-venom will be administered even if the bitten dog is vaccinated. Discuss your options with your vet regarding this vaccine.
Some areas offer snake aversion training programs aimed at teaching dogs to avoid the native reptiles. Consider enrolling your pet in a health insurance plan if you live in, or travel to, high-risk areas. Because anti-venom and associated tests and treatments for snakebites are quite expensive, pet insurance can be a good way to offset the costs of hospitalization.
Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.