Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Spring is the start of snake season in North Carolina. The vast majority of snakes in our state are harmless. Only a few venomous snake species (copperheads, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, and coral snakes) live in North Carolina. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, the copperhead is by far the most common venomous snake.
Learn to recognize copperheads.
Copperheads have a distinctive hourglass pattern that from the side looks like a row of Hershey’s kisses. It’s easier to identify a copperhead by its markings than by the shape of its head or pupils. Head shape isn’t a reliable way to tell if a snake is venomous; some nonvenomous snakes can flatten their heads to mimic a pit viper’s triangular head. As for pupil shape (round vs vertical slits)—seriously, just don’t get close enough to a wild snake to check.
You can see photos of North Carolina snakes on the Herps of NC website: https://herpsofnc.org/snakes/. You’ll notice that copperheads and also a lot of nonvenomous snakes are brown with splotches. This color combination is common because it’s great camouflage, but unfortunately it means that nonvenomous snakes are often mistaken for copperheads.
Don’t worry too much about identifying a snake that’s bitten your dog. Treatment is based more on symptoms than on snake species, and it’s more important to get your dog to an emergency clinic without delay. If you want to identify a snake you’ve seen outdoors, take a photo so you can look it up online, but don’t approach or disturb the snake.
Dogs get bitten because they’re curious, not because snakes are aggressive attack animals.
Snakes hide in small spaces where they’re relatively safe from predators and can find food (mostly small rodents like mice). Woodpiles, tarps, underbrush, tall grass, leaf litter, rock crevices, and yard debris are all possible snake habitats.
Snakes bite for defense. A dog that steps on a snake or sticks its nose into a snake’s hiding place can be bitten. Because of their color camouflage, copperheads are hard to spot. You and your dog might not even know a copperhead is there unless it bites one of you.
Avoid snake areas. If you see a snake, leave it alone and walk away.
Here are some ways to reduce your dog’s chance of a snake encounter:
If your dog is bitten, seek emergency veterinary care right away.
Copperhead venom isn’t as toxic as cottonmouth or rattlesnake venom, but a copperhead bite can still be quite serious for a dog. Copperhead bites are very painful and cause swelling and tissue damage. The venom can also interfere with blood clotting.
Dogs with snakebite are usually hospitalized for pain management, intravenous fluids, wound care, supportive care, and observation. Copperhead bites aren’t often treated with antivenin, but dogs with severe symptoms might need it.
If your dog is bitten, stay calm and take your dog to an emergency clinic. Don’t use ice, a tourniquet, or anything to remove venom from the wound; all of these can make the tissue damage worse. Leave the snake alone. If you try to catch or kill it, you could be bitten too.
CDC image source: https://phil.cdc.gov/Details.aspx?pid=10841
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.