How to protect your pet from snakebites

Billy Jenkins and Piper on their deck in Buford. Piper was bitten by a copperhead and was rushed to the emergency clinic. CONTRIBUTED

The original version of this story was published on May 19, 2017.

When Billy Jenkins returned to his Buford home one afternoon, he noticed Piper, the family’s Yorkie and Maltese mix, was acting strangely.

She wouldn’t eat. She was sluggish and kept whimpering.

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He found blood under her left paw, which was starting to swell.

Jenkins immediately suspected she had been bitten by a snake.

Indeed, snakebites are on the rise among humans and pets.

Georgia Poison Control, for instance, estimates that snakebites against people were up 60 percent last spring from the same period in 2016.

When Dr. Michelle Goodnight, an emergency and critical care specialist, shaved the 7-pound dog’s paw, she found two small puncture marks.

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Jenkins was given two options — take Piper home and keep a close eye on her, or hospitalize her for an anti-venom infusion.

Jenkins, who was worried about side effects of the anti-venom, decided to take her home after a shot for pain and addition pain medication.

“She had a rough night,” said Jenkins, who later found and killed the large copperhead, which was curled up in a corner in his backyard. “It was scary.” It was the second time a family pet had been bitten by a snake in the backyard. In 2016, his daughter’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was also bitten by a copperhead and survived.

With so many more humans bitten by snakes last year, it stands to reason that man’s best friend wouldn’t be spared. Such bites can be deadly — and expensive.

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Goodnight, a veterinarian at North Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Buford, said she saw a 25 percent increase in snakebite cases last spring. She blamed the increase on an unusually warm winter.

In 2016, the practice had 12 snakebite cases that required antivenin, and 30 total snake bites, with most bites occurring between July and September. The next year, snakebite "season" had just started and they had seen six pets with confirmed snake bites, compared with only one by that time the year before.

Billy Jenkins of Buford found and killed the copperhead that bit his pet, Piper. Experts advise people not to confront a snake. CONTRIBUTED

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She said her colleagues in primary vet care reported increases of as much as 50 percent.

One Thursday, the practice got three snakebite cases in a row, all from pets playing in backyards.

In fact, most snakebites among pets usually happen in their owner’s yard, where the pets usually roam about unleashed.

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“As humans, we tend to make noise, and snakes avoid that,” she said. “It will scare the majority of snakes. If you have a fenced-in backyard, most people will just open the door and let the pet go outside by themselves.”

Once outside, a naturally curious dog or cat will meander around and investigate any creature it comes across — including a snake.

“They don’t know that if a snake is rattling, they shouldn’t play with it,” she said. “It’s just something new and interesting.”

Most of the bites she sees are on the nose, neck and legs — areas closest to a striking snake.

Even if the snake is nonvenomous, the bite can be painful and bacteria could cause a secondary infection, she said. It can be helpful if you can describe the snake, but Goodnight warns people not to try to capture or kill it, because then you could be bitten as well.

“We typically don’t enjoy people bringing venomous snakes into the office,” she said. “We prefer a picture.”

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The best thing a pet owner can do, she said, is to get to an emergency vet as soon as possible. Most regular vets do not carry anti-venom.

Such visits can be costly.

Elvis, a 16-pound miniature schnauzer, also went up against a snake in his Sugar Hill backyard, which is wooded with lots of pine straw and contains a small pond.

One night after letting him out, his owner, Susan Taba, noticed Elvis seemed sluggish and disoriented. He held his mouth in a odd way, his eyes were glazed over, his neck was swelling and she noticed a small amount of blood on his paw.

Most of the venomous bites involve copperheads. CONTRIBUTED

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She didn’t see puncture marks, but thinking the worst, she quickly drove him to the emergency vet.

“I was freaking out,” said Taba. “I was very afraid.”

When the vet shaved his hair, she noticed his skin had started to turn black.

Taba never saw the snake but said it may have been a cottonmouth or a copperhead, and since both are venomous, they didn’t take any chances.

Elvis received a dose of anti-venom and had to stay overnight because his blood was not clotting properly, and he had to be checked again the next day.

Susan Taba and her dog, Elvis, live in Sugar Hill. Elvis was bitten by what she suspects was a copperhead. He recovered and is back to eating and barking at cars. CONTRIBUTED

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For the first 48 hours, he was in pain and had to be given medication.

“I couldn’t take him home,” said Taba. “If I had taken him home, he would have died.”

While there, Taba noticed several other anxious pet owners whose dogs had been bitten by snakes.

The bill came to $2,000, which Taba gladly paid to get Elvis home.

“You have to save your pet,” she said. “They’re like your children.”

Dr. Mike Grasso, medical director of Cobb & Cherokee Emergency Veterinary Clinics, said his staff sees a large number of snakebites every year. Last year, though, they started seeing cases later than usual, "but it's in full force now. This year, it started later, but we're more than making up for it."

One night, the clinic had five cases of canine snakebite that required an overnight stay. “They were coming in droves,” he said.

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Most of the venomous bites involve copperheads. Georgia has some of the most scenic national and state parks, but if you don’t keep your dog on a leash and keep him on the trail, “you’re really rolling the dice. People let their dogs play near riverbeds. You may not see them (snakes), but they’re there.”

Experts say pet owners should always keep their dogs on a leash or be careful when they go in the yard.

Jason Clark of Southeastern Reptile Rescue in Griffin offers aversion training — or so-called snake school — for dogs.

The $60-per-pet course teaches dogs to avoid snakes using the senses of sight, smell and sound. The class uses live, venomous snakes. According to its website, dogs are trained using an e-collar, which produces a negative reinforcement by electric stimulation.

People can also post photos on the company’s Facebook page, and Clark will help identify the culprit.

Unlike Grasso, Clark said he started getting calls about snakes in January and February last year, instead of the usual months of March and April.

He advises pet owners to keep shrugs trimmed and backyards free of a lot of clippings, debris, ivy and monkey grass, which provide good ground cover for a snake.

While bird feeders are good for birds, they also attract food sources for snakes. “Bird feeders are great in winter when birds need it the most and snakes are not as active,” he said. “Snakes are not mystical creatures. Like any animal, they look for a suitable habitat and food sources. When a snake comes on your property, you don’t want them to feel comfortable being there.”