Keep pets safe from snakes in the fall

No scuffle, no sound, no shuffling of leaves or sticks. Not even a yelp of pain from the dog. But Dozer was suddenly limping and licking his paw.

In the moment it took to get inside the house from the driveway, the black Lab’s hind foot had swelled to an unrecognizable club three times its normal size. Alarmed, Tim Pape and his wife, Lydia, rushed their pet to an emergency veterinarian.

Diesel and Dozer, the Papes’ rambunctious young Labrador retrievers, are never allowed off-leash during their evening walks. For one, the jet-black dogs literally melt into the night on the heavily forested mountain where the Papes live. Not to mention the irresistible hordes of squirrels that frequent their property—the dogs stay clipped in.

Nonetheless, on that recent mild night, with the ground still damp from rain, Dozer returned to Tim’s side from just a leash’s length away, grievously injured.

The vet informed them Dozer had encountered a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). Along with the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus horridus), the copperhead is one of two venomous snakes indigenous to our area. Both are typically found in remote, rocky regions of Maryland. Thick-bodied copperheads are mainly identifiable by their triangular, rust-red heads and dark brown hourglass-shaped back bands, while rattlesnakes have the tail rattle and dark chevron stripes on a yellowish to gray background.

Credit: - Center for Disease Control

A northern copperhead is shown. Protect your dogs from this snake by avoiding rocky, wooded areas, especially after a rainstorm.

Though in great pain, Dozer came away from the episode intact—albeit after a stay at the vet’s, a week of meds and a very large cone of shame.

Snakes almost always opt to flee than fight, but Dozer just had bad luck. The surprised snake likely lashed out in self-defense.

Several factors were likely to blame for the copperhead’s exposed location, chief among them the recent unseasonable rain. Snakes come out from hiding in their usual brushy haunts after rain to find higher, drier ground. They dislike a soggy bed as much as the next person.

Fall is also when many snakes go through a semi-annual molt, or process of shedding their old skins—even from over their eyes. Near-sighted to begin with, a molting snake is virtually blind and accordingly jumpy. A day after the attack, Tim found a shed snakeskin nearby.

Cooler weather brings breeding and hatching season. Males are more aggressive, vying for females’ favor. New hatchlings on high alert for predators also tend to strike out more often than adults.

A bite from a copperhead or rattlesnake is painful and sometimes disfiguring, but rarely fatal in either humans or pets. Copperhead venom is relatively weak, and timber rattlesnakes are conservative with their venom, injecting little to none when striking at non-prey targets.

Nonetheless, pet owners can take some precautions during high snakebite season to keep their companions safe.

  • Avoid brush piles, stacked logs or sunny rock piles, and keep them away from the house. Copperheads especially rest and await their rodent prey in these nooks and crannies.

  • Be alert when walking along roadsides. Snakes enjoy warming their bellies on a dark asphalt road.

  • Expect to see increased snake activity after heavy or prolonged rains.

  • Do not try to shoo a snake you stumble upon, even if you think it’s a “safe” species. A threatened snake is more likely to strike.

  • Give it a wide berth and allow it to move along on its own.

If you suspect your pet has been bitten, seek medical attention immediately. Do not use a tourniquet, ice or compression bandage, as these can result in more severe damage.

Article by Michelle Donahue, FCFCDB member

Nature Note for 9/14/14