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Often when a bird dog is outdoors, he or she is in danger of a snake encounter. Many variables impact the severity and outcome of a snakebite, and emergency veterinary care is essential.
“The amount of venom injected is a critical variable in a snakebite equation,” says Michael E. Peterson, DVM, MS, of the Reid Veterinary Hospital in Albany, Oregon, who has written over 65 book chapters and veterinary conference lectures on the diagnosis and treatment of venomous snakebites in North America. “The location of the bite, the size of the dog, and the elapsed time between the dog being bitten and the arrival at a veterinary facility also are factors.”
Although there is no reliable data on the number of dogs bitten annually by snakes, it is important to know what you can do to help avoid snake bites, plus what to do if you suspect your dog has been bitten.
‘Snakeproof’ Your Dog
“Snakeproofing” your dog, or putting your dog through a snake-avoidance program, can help prepare him or her to react to an offensive strike. This training conditions a dog to give any snake he or she encounters, whether via sight, smell, sound, or some combination thereof, the widest possible berth.
“You can’t eliminate the risk completely,” Dr. Peterson advises. “If your dog is running full-tilt downwind, he or she may bump into a snake before he or she senses it’s there. Luckily, this kind of encounter typically results in a defensive bite that tends to be less severe. On the other hand, a dog that hasn’t been ‘snakeproofed’ may try to actively engage with a snake, which is likely to result in a more serious offensive strike.”
In a controlled setting, a dog is led toward a live snake that’s healthy but has been rendered temporarily incapable of delivering a venomous strike. Rattlesnakes are generally preferred because the buzz of their rattle adds a sound association. Whenever the dog shows the slightest interest in the snake, he or she receives a firm correction. Through repetition and reinforcement, the dog learns that snakes are bad and should be avoided.
Many sporting dog clubs and organizations, particularly in the South and Southwest, sponsor snake-avoidance clinics or seminars with professional trainers. Some pro trainers, such as Rody Best of Best Retrievers in Paige, Texas, also host snake-avoidance clinics, which are helpful across the board for all sporting dogs.
“Dogs learn quickly to associate negativity with the sight, smell and sound of the snakes,” says Best. “We encourage owners to enroll their dogs two years in a row, and then every other year, to reinforce the training.”
What to Do In Case of a Snakebite
Despite efforts to avoid snakebites, it isn’t always possible.
“The majority of canine snakebites occur on a dog’s legs and face. The prognosis for bites in these areas is generally good, but bites to the face can result in grotesque swelling,” Dr. Peterson says. “Bites to the body trunk are typically more serious, and the worst place of all is the tongue due to its abundance of blood vessels, though both are rare.”
The amount of swelling at the site of the strike is not a reliable indicator of the bite’s severity. A relatively mild bite can result in significant swelling, while a very serious bite can show little or no swelling.
If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a snake, it is crucial to seek emergency veterinary care. Do not apply ice or heat to the wound, nor should you attempt to cut into the wound and suck out the venom or apply a bandage to the wound. Restrain your dog as much as possible and keep him or her calm to help slow the spread of venom until you get him or her to the veterinarian.
“The bottom line is that if your dog has been struck by a venomous snake, don’t second-guess,” Dr. Peterson advises. “Drop everything and go to a veterinary facility as fast as you can. The only ‘snakebite kit’ you need is your car keys, as there’s nothing you can do in the field that will improve your dog’s outcome.”
The most desirable scenario, of course, is for your bird dog not to get bitten in the first place. Investing in snake-avoidance training could pay off in a big way.