No one keeps track of how many dogs are bitten by venomous snakes in North Carolina, but if the night my girl got nailed is typical, the answer is lots.
It was just before sunset on Hard Times Trail. Roo, my golden retriever, was nosing around in the bushes at the edge. Suddenly, looking stunned and frightened, she bolted back onto the path, her tail tucked.
Within a minute she was limping. I couldn’t find anything wrong with her paw or arm. She lay down and rolled onto her side. Something bad was happening fast.
I had to carry her out. Luckily, the parking lot wasn’t far, and the Regional Emergency Animal Care Hospital, known as REACH, was only 6 miles north. When we got there, a tech took Roo from my arms, put me on a sit and stay and disappeared into the ER.
Ten long minutes later Dr. Ersin Ulke appeared.
“Well, it’s a snakebite,” he said. Antivenin was the best treatment, but there were no guarantees. Also, a rare, fatal allergic reaction was possible. Cost: $700 per dose. If it was his dog, he would give it to her, and the sooner the better. Did I want her to have it?
“Yes — right away.”
“It’ll be at least an hour,” he said. She was fourth in line for antivenin, which takes time to reconstitute from powder. The other snakebitten dogs were all sicker than Roo.
Dr. Ulke led me to the intensive care room for a brief visit. We passed a chocolate labrador convulsing violently on a steel table. A team of vets and techs worked to save him. No wonder owners weren’t allowed to hover.
“Another snakebite,” Dr. Ulke said. “He wasn’t brought in until he got very sick.”
That’s not uncommon. Dogs can seem fine after a bite. Symptoms can be delayed. Depending on the location of the bite, the amount of venom injected, the size and age of the snake and of the dog, anything can happen. And the $700 to get in the door — which is only the beginning — means a lot of dogs will not get treated.
Roo looked miserable in her cage, but she managed a couple of wags and tried to get up. She was way too woozy and in too much pain. Her front leg was swollen as far as the skin would stretch. She sank right back down.
Dr. Ulke showed me the shaved patched on the leg. One fang had left a blue, scimitar-shaped imprint. The other one barely nicked her. The snake probably recoiled at the sudden step of a dog and couldn’t squeeze off a well-aimed bite. Defensive bites are often dry, but not this one. Four inches of her soft pink skin was already hard and black.
It was time not just to get out of the way, but to pay the deposit that would start treatment. I was stunned by the invoice for $2,168. Well, I thought, Roo wouldn’t think twice about spending it on me. Of that, $521 would be refunded later. Mandatory snakebite kit item: a credit card with room to spare.
I began the waiting-room vigil. The parents of the chocolate lab sat in a far corner, heads down, holding hands. An hour later a vet came out to tell them that their boy didn’t make it.
The good news, though, is that most dogs do make it — and recover completely.
REACH veterinarian Dr. Beth Jones said more than 90 percent of the dogs the clinic treats survive. Last year’s average was about a dog a day. Odds of survival are worse for abdominal or arterial bites or when treatment has been delayed for too long. “You don’t want to fool around,” she said.
Roo, a mess of cage hair and cowlicks, limped out the next day. She jumped in the car as if we were making a getaway from another one of her bungled Petco heists. She spent four days developing a taste for breakfast in bed, leaving her butler time to research snakes.
We share these hills with two venomous species, timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. Jeff Hall, a Western North Carolina Resources Center herpetologist, said rattlers are reclusive and require larger forested areas. Copperheads can be found in any wooded patch, even in city limits.
Unless they’re mating, snakes are usually loners. We hike, run or bike right past them in the hollow stumps, flat rocks and woodpiles they like. They can be in grass, holes or cracks, ambushing prey by waiting with their heads on logs, or hidden in the bushes (just ask Roo).
Copperheads, Hall said, “are more antsy than rattlers,” faster, more temperamental and quicker to strike, but neither wants to waste venom on anyone too big to eat. Slowly backing off ends most snake encounters. Handling a snake is asking for it — just ask any of the most common subspecies of ER snakebite patrons: young men with booze on board. (“Dude! A snake! Watch this!”)
I asked Dr. Jones what she thought about dogs running off leash during the six months of snake season (guilty, your honor).
“Dogs have got to be dogs. They need to live a dog’s life,” she said. “They need to get out on the trails and swim in the creeks.”
Jeff Hall keeps his Jack Russell on leash, but that’s to limit exposure to all wildlife, not for fear of snakes. He said not to be too paranoid.
Either way, a snakebite plan is essential.
Leave a bite wound alone. No tourniquet, no pocketknife Xs, no sucking venom out. Until recently, Benadryl was given for first aid, but Dr. Jones said it is no longer recommended. Carrying your dog will help to keep the heart rate down and the venom from spreading.
If you have a big dog, nylon paracord is handy for improvising a stretcher. Above all, know where the animal hospital is.
And remember that credit card. Roo never lets her butler leave home without it.