For many of us, spring through fall is peak hiking/camping season. Unfortunately, it’s also snake season, which means we have to coexist on the trails with these danger noodles.
Joking aside, this is a serious matter and one that everyone should be aware of.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the US. The odds of that bite being fatal to a person are 1,400 to 1.
The lines become a bit more blurred when it comes to canine statistics since there is no central data resource for snake bites in dogs.
When a dog is bitten by a poisonous snake and proper action is taken, the odds are in your dogs favor. Like people, all dogs react differently in the event of a snake bite, due to a wide variety of variables. Things like the size of the dog, location of the bite, intensity/depth of the bite, amount of venom injected and the age/species of the snake are just to name a few.
It’s important to keep in mind that snake bites only occur out of defense, when a snake is startled and/or fears for its own life. We are after all, exponentially larger than them and happen to be traipsing through their environment.
First and foremost, it’s important that you’re alert and aware of your surroundings when out in nature. You shouldn’t assume that snakes aren’t present because it’s a high traffic trail or even in winter (when they are hibernating). You should be aware of where you and your dog are placing hands/feet/paws/snouts, especially in nooks and crannies when climbing. You should also scan the path around you and be attentive for the sound of a rattle.
Snakes can be difficult to identify, but understanding what type of snake you’ve encountered - especially if you or your dog has been bitten - is important when being treated with antivenom. In general, non-venomous snakes will typically have round pupils, while venomous snakes have elliptical shaped eyes like a cat.
Familiarize yourself with distinguishing characteristics of venomous snakes found in your area. For example, rattlesnakes (the most common venomous snake in the US) can be identified by their rattle, heat sensing pits or holes on the sides of their heads, their triangular heads and elliptical shaped eyes.
Not sure what venomous snakes live in your area?
Check out this interactive map that shows which venomous snakes are native to each state.
Dogs are usually more susceptible to snake bites simply because of curiosity. Most of us have the common sense to leave snakes alone, however our canine companions might find the strange looking reptiles intriguing.
There are a couple of options when it comes to snake aversion training, so it’s a matter researching and identifying what you believe would be best for you and your pup.
You can work on training foundation skills such as “leave it” (turning their attention away from distractions) “watch” (immediate attention on handler when the stimulus is encountered) and other skills that will help you and your dog if you were to encounter a snake.
There are also a number of organizations/trainers that offer aversion training that help teach your dog how to identify and be cautious around venomous snakes. In the program, dogs are introduced to live, safely/humanely muzzled snakes to allow dogs the opportunity to recognize the sight, sound and smell of the animal.
Again, it’s very important to do your research and understand what is right for you and your dog. If you do seek out a professional, do your due diligence to find a reputable trainer.
The best way to prevent a bite is to avoid snakes all together. You can’t necessarily control an encounter, but you can decrease your chances of running into one.
Keep your dog on leash while hiking/camping - keeping your dog beside you means you can keep your dog away from the edge of hiking trails and other places bites are most likely to occur.
Hike on well maintained trails - well maintained trails offer less places for snakes to hide and staying on the trail means you can see what’s on the path in front of you.
Avoid common snake hideouts- rocky areas, under fallen trees or sunny water sources are all prime real estate for snakes and should be avoided. Don’t allow your dog to stick their noses into holes or rummage around areas snakes hide. Teaching your dog a solid “leave it” command is useful for keeping them out of these areas.
Leave them alone - if you do come across a snake, quietly wait for it to move a safe distance. Most snakes want to leave the area once they’re aware of your presence. Do NOT disturb the snake in any way. If the snake doesn’t leave the trail, you should quietly leave. Keep a distance of no less than six feet between yourselves and the snake.
Vaccination - the vaccine is a bit controversial, but is meant to buy your dog more time if they were to get bit. The vaccine helps your dog create antibodies to rattlesnake venom, so in the event of a bite, your dog’s immune system can respond quicker to neutralize the venom. Again, this is something that every owner should research and understand in order to make a decision on.
Be attentive - don’t leave your dog unattended on trails or at campsites where they can let curiosity get the better of them.
Symptoms of a snake bite may appear within 1 to 24 hours after the incident occurs, but it’s important to understand that the bite will immediately take effect on your dog’s system
A bite can happen quickly and go unnoticed. Your dog can’t tell you he’s been bitten, so you should be vigilant and attentive.
There are many scenarios you should be prepared for when out in nature and a snake bite is one of them, despite how rare it may be. Should worse come to worst and your dog is bit, you should have a plan on how to get your dog to safety.
Even if the snake wasn’t venomous, a bite can easily become infected and should be looked at by a professional as soon as possible.
Now as terrifying as all this can be, remember that snakes don’t want an altercation and anymore than we do and it's our responsibility to respect the environment we're exploring.
With some common sense and practical precautions, you shouldn’t be scared to hit the trails, but being prepared for a nope rope encounter is the first step. 🐍
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