Texas Tech University

RaiderVet Expert Corner: Pit Viper Envenomation

Robin Carlson

July 19, 2023

Den of Snakes

School of Veterinary Medicine Professor, Robin Carlson, has some important tips to keep your pets safe this summer from snakes.

Have you ever asked the question, “What should I do if my dog or cat is attacked by a snake?” During the spring and summer season, snakes are slithering all around, especially in Texas. So, it's important to be aware of you and your pets' surroundings.  

Over the years, Dr. Robin Carlson, professor of practice at Texas Tech University's  School of Veterinary Medicine and owner of Bushland Small Animal Veterinary Clinic in Bushland, Texas, has seen countless companion animals who have been snake bitten. She has valuable information to share about snakes and how to keep your pets safe during the summer.

What are Pit Vipers?

Pit vipers are the most significant venomous snakes in North America. The three major pit vipers in Texas are rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. Pit vipers are identified by their broad, triangular-shaped heads; retractable, curving fangs in the upper jaw; vertically slit pupils; and a heat-sensing organ between each eye and nostril (in the loreal pit). As many as 300,000 companion animals are bit every year by pit vipers. Most bites, 90%, occur between April and October. Even though copperheads are responsible for most envenomations per year, the highest number of deaths are caused by rattlesnake envenomation. This is because rattlesnake venom is generally the most toxic, followed by water moccasins and copperheads. You may have heard that some bites are “dry” meaning no venom was injected. However, the vast majority, at least 80%, of bites do result in envenomation.Snake

Why or how is venom toxic?

Several things influence the amount and degree of toxicity of venom. Larger snakes can produce more venom than smaller snakes. Young snakes have a more concentrated venom than older snakes. And snakes that are agonal (about to die) produce a greater volume of venom, making their bites the most severe.

Venom contains several components. The components vary from species and from snake to snake. The components that are toxic to the nervous system and heart are the most lethal. Other components (which can be lethal but are not as immediately so) can affect the ability of the blood to clot (which leads to hemorrhage), make red blood cells burst, affect breathing, cause the kidneys to shut down, and cause significant damage to the skin and tissues surrounding the bite. The components that affect the blood can cause blood to pool in the lung vessels of cats and in the spleen vessels of dogs.

What should you do if your pet is bit?

Often, dogs will come and find you if they are bit because they are in a lot of pain. Cats, on the other hand, will often go and hide. If you think your pet has been bitten by a snake, it is important to seek veterinary care as soon as possible (even if your pet has received a rattlesnake vaccine). The smaller the pet, that faster you should seek veterinary care. Remember, you may not always see fang marks because the holes can swell shut very quickly. Usually signs will develop within 30 minutes but can take up to 3 hours to be obvious to the owner. Bites to the legs and face (which is where most bites occur) have slower venom absorption than bites to the chest or body. Venom is rapidly absorbed when animals are bit on the tongue. Rattlesnake bites are extremely painful and often swell quite quickly and more intently for up to 36 hours. 

How severely your pet is affected will depend on several factors:

  1. The “dose” of venom your pet received
    1. For example, if your 4-pound dog got the same amount of venom as your 50-pound dog, the smaller dog got more venom per pound than the large dog. Thus, the smaller dog may have worse symptoms than the large dog. 
  2. The location they were bitten on their body
  3. Their rattlesnake vaccination status
  4. Which components and the concentration of those components that were in the venom of the snake that bit them

Because rattlesnakes are so prevalent in the Texas Panhandle, it is difficult to avoid them. The best thing you can do is get your pet to the veterinarian as soon after the bite as possible. Outcomes tend to be better for pets that are treated soon after the bite. 

Note: It is important to seek care even if you think it was a dry bite because snake mouths are full of germs, so the likelihood of infection is very high.

Can I prevent Rattlesnake bites?

Yes, you can. Most snakes are active around dawn and dusk because that is when they are out feeding. As it gets cooler some snakes will sun on rocks in the afternoon. If possible, avoid letting your pet out during these times. 

There are also rattlesnake deterrent courses for your pet, but really investigate them before signing your pet up for one. Many of these courses use a pain avoidance technique which is not an optimal teaching and learning format for dogs.

If you are hiking, do not let your dog run free. Keep them on a leash so that you can quickly pull them away from a dangerous situation.

Finally, dogs and horses can be vaccinated. The rattlesnake vaccine will help to reduce the problems caused by the bite and as mentioned before it will give you a little extra time to get your pet to a veterinarian. 

It is best to get the vaccine in early March before many snakes emerge from brumation which means hibernation but only for cold-blooded animals. In brumation, the animals move during warm winter days while animals that hibernate do not move at all. They hide underground in dens to keep warm. Some snakes may find their way into basements to stay warm so be sure to be on the lookout for them if you have a basement. 

Note: If you take your dog hunting or live in an area with a high rattlesnake population you should vaccinate your dogs every 6 months.