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Those Sneaky Snakes (Welcome to Florida)

Dr. Bob Encinosa

As we move through spring and the weather warms, snakes become more active. This is true of both poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, but of course the snakes that cause us the most concern, for ourselves and our pets, are the poisonous ones. Like it or not, Florida’s warm, sub-tropical climate make it a haven for many different snakes, and that includes a large variety of poisonous species, perhaps more than any other state. We are also home to the one snake considered the most dangerous species in the United States, the Eastern Diamond Back Rattlesnake. It is considered the most dangerous because of its size, its aggressiveness and the large volume of venom it can inject.

Even as this region of Florida has transitioned from rural to suburban, snake bites in pets continue to be a real threat. While the frequency of bites from larger woodland rattlesnakes has declined, the frequency of bites from the smaller Pygmy or Ground Rattlesnake has increased. The frequency of bites from Coral snakes has also increased. These two species are frequently found in well manicured yards around hedges where they hunt small mammals and lizards. Pets may also be encountering venomous bites from Cottonmouth Moccasins more often as well, as so many subdivisions are designed around ponds and wetland nature preserves.

Cats and dogs are very different in their ability to survive snake bites. Simply put, after a venomous snake bite, dogs usually survive and cats usually do not, even with treatment. Nevertheless, the sooner you seek veterinary care after a bite, the better the pet’s chance of survival. Dogs are most frequently bitten on the face or front legs because of their tendency to stick their head into bushes and holes where snakes reside and also because of their innate tendency to protect the yard against intruders.

Symptoms of rattlesnake and moccasin bites are similar. Immediate pain, swelling and bleeding are seen as the venom quickly destroys soft tissues and blood cells. One or two fang punctures are usually found. Symptoms of coral snake bites can be much less obvious and even difficult to diagnose, because there is often little swelling and the neurologic symptoms that result can mimic many other conditions. Skin punctures are much less obvious if visible at all. With all venomous snake bites, the severity of damage and the likelihood for survival are closely tied to the size of the snake and the size of the pet. A Chihuahua is much less likely to survive an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake bite than a Golden Retriever is to survive a bite from a Pygmy Rattler.

The best chances for survival are when antivenin can be administered within the first hour or two. Though not always necessary for survival, antivenin does increase the odds for a good outcome and reduces the amount of tissue damage and length of time for complete recovery. Often times, the use of antivenin is bypassed because of its high cost, nevertheless, veterinary care is necessary to treat the massive bacterial infection and potential loss of tissue that often accompanies these bites. It is no longer thought to be worthwhile using tourniquets to “trap” the venom. For pets and for humans, the faster medical treatment can be started the better. Also an accurate description of the snake is very helpful since the type of antivenin needed depends on whether the snake is a pit viper (rattlesnake or moccasin) or a coral snake.