Copperhead Bite Wounds in Dogs

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Close-up of a copperhead snake.
Close-up of a copperhead snake. (Image: Mark Kostich/iStock/Getty Images)

Generally, snakes have little interest in biting you or your dog. They prefer to be left alone. But if your dog happens upon a copperhead, chances are he'll want to check out the slithery creature, and then the copperhead will likely strike out at your dog, potentially making contact with his two sharp fangs. If your dog gets bitten, keep calm and seek veterinary treatment right away.

Meet the Copperhead

The copperhead inhabits a lot of territory throughout the eastern and central United States. He's a large snake, ranging between 24 and 40 inches long, with a heavy body and a large, triangular head. His eyes are elliptical -- like your cat's -- and his body tan to brown with darker crossbands along its length. His head is solid brown, sporting two tiny dots in the center at the top.

It's easy to confuse a copperhead with other snakes, but this snake is unique because his crossbands are hourglass-shaped. The copperhead, in the viperine subfamily of snakes, is custom-made to inflict damage. His long, hollow fangs are hinged, allowing for easy withdrawal after they inject their venom. Viperines usually deposit venom toxic to the blood, preventing clotting and killing cells.

Signs of a Bite

All your dog has to do is stick his nose under the wrong rock to surprise a copperhead and risk a bite. If you didn't actually see a snake bite your dog, you can look for signs of a copperhead bite wound. A snake can strike your dog anywhere -- however, he'll take the closest target, which is often the dog's snout or head.

You may see paired puncture wounds or extensive swelling -- it spreads rapidly, often obscuring the bite holes. His skin may become discolored, and a bloody, dark fluid may seep from the fang wounds. The Merck Manual notes that snake bites can be mistaken for spider bites or allergic reactions to insect stings.

Keep Your Cool -- and Keep Your Dog Still

Whether you know your dog was bitten or you merely suspect a snake bite, you'll do the same thing: Keep your dog calm and go to the vet. If the snake is present, note what it looks like, or take a picture of it with your phone, to help the vet confirm it's a copperhead.

If your dog was bitten on a limb, VCA Animal Hospitals and Dr. T.J. Dunn, Jr. of PetMD.com recommend applying a tourniquet, just above the wound. Dr. Dunn recommends the tourniquet should be snug to slow the progression of venom through the dog's body, but not so tight to cut off his circulation -- meanwhile, the ASPCA and PetEducation.com recommend not using a tourniquet, warning it can delay veterinary treatment.

Carry your dog, if possible, instead of allowing him to walk. Do not handle the snake and risk your own snake bite, nor should you lance your dog above the bite to suck the venom out. Immediate veterinary treatment is your dog's best option for recovery.

Treatment for Nonvenomous Wounds

If it turns out the snake was nonvenomous, or the copperhead didn't inject any venom, the bite will be treated as a puncture wound -- wound cleaning, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and antihistamines as necessary. In the case of copperhead envenomization, the dog will likely have a combination of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antihistamines and fluid therapy for recovery.

Wait, Watch and Recover

Copperhead envenomization is followed by three phases: the first two hours, the following 24 hours and the time period following envenomization, usually around 10 days. Untreated animals typically die within the first two hours, while those alive and alert after 24 hours don't usually die from the effects of the venom. Recovery occurs during the final phase, when the dog is prone to infection, causing extensive cell damage. The size of the snake, the amount of venom injected, the number and location of bites, and the dog's size and health all impact the dog's ultimate prognosis.

Steer Clear

You can't keep a threatened snake from striking and biting, but you can minimize the chance your dog encounters a poisonous snake. Keep him leashed on your walks, and though he loves exploring, don't allow him to dig under logs, planks or flat rocks, nor should he go sniffing around holes in the ground. Stick to clear, open paths where you'll spot snakes, and exercise caution if your dog expresses interest in something tucked away in the grass.

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