Texas snakes say: Don’t tread on me!

By Dr. Beth Leermakers

Years ago my dog Snowie was bitten on his face by a snake. Snowie was rooting around in the bushes when he disturbed a snake (probably a copperhead), which bit him several times. His face quickly became extremely swollen. In a panic, I immediately called my vet. The vet recommended I give Snowie Benadryl and several other medications (fortunately on hand) and bring him to the vet clinic the next day. Poor Snowie was in so much pain that he wouldn’t take the peanut-butter coated pills (usually a treat!). My vet examined him the next day and treated him with anti-venom, and 55-lb Snowie was fine. Unfortunately, snake bites can do more damage to small dogs. So, if you see snakes in your yard, it’s important to be able to identify the poisonous ones. If a snake wanders into your house, you’ll want to get rid of it quickly — whether or not you have dogs.

According to 911 Wildlife, a Texas wildlife removal company owned and operated by wildlife rehabilitators, snakes play an important role in the environment by eating disease-carrying pests (insects and rodents) that may invade your home. More than 100 species and subspecies of snakes live in Texas, and many are common in urban areas. While most of these snakes are harmless, 15 species and subspecies are potentially dangerous. Even the non-toxic snakes may bite when they’re startled. Snakes bite to defend themselves when they’re startled or cornered, or when they’re handled. They don’t hunt people.

Venomous snakes in Texas. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife (tpwd.texas.gov), these poisonous snakes are commonly found in Texas:

Copperheads have chestnut or reddish-brown crossbands on a lighter colored body. These snakes are found in rocky areas and wooded bottomlands and are rarely seen in dry areas. In the spring you may see them along streams and rivers, as well as in weed-covered vacant lots. The broadbanded copperhead, found in central and western Texas, is about two-feet long.

Cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, can be dark brown, olive-brown, olive green or almost solid black, with wide, dark bands. White tissue inside its mouth, which it displays when threatened, give this snake its name. Averaging about 3-1/2 feet in length, cottonmouths are found over the eastern half of Texas in swamps and sluggish waterways, coastal marshes, rivers, ponds and streams. Not surprisingly given their habitat, they eat fish.

Rattle snakes. The most common and widespread venomous snake in Texas, found everywhere but the easternmost part of the state, is the western diamondback. This rattler is brown, with diamond-shaped markings along the middle of the back and alternating black and white rings on the tail. Averaging 3 1/2 to 4-1/2 feet long, this poisonous snake can reach seven feet.

What to do if you see a snake in your home. Snakes enter homes looking for prey, so if you have a rodent or insect infestation, you may see snakes. Snakes may also invade your home — your garage, shed or under your pier and beam foundation — seeking shelter, particularly in cold weather. If you see a snake that appears to just be looking for food (the 911 website doesn’t clarify how to tell!), open a window or door and allow the snake to leave on its own.

If the snake doesn’t leave, you may need to call Amanda, the snake expert at 911 Wildlife. If you’re not trained to identify and handle snakes, it’s best to bring in the wildlife control professionals. When Nancy Black, White Rock Lake Weekly’s editor, discovered three snakes in her backyard(!), she called Amanda in a panic. After Amanda looked at a cell phone picture Nancy had taken, she determined they were harmless yellow-bellied water snakes.

But, Nancy learned, just because they are non-venomous, water snakes will bite if they feel threatened. Instead of trapping and relocating wildlife — a procedure that doesn’t usually solve the problem and may result in the death of the relocated animal or orphaned babies left behind — the 911 Wildlife folks use humane eviction and exclusion techniques to keep unwanted critters out of your home for good.

Fortunately, Nancy’s snakes slithered off on their own before any further action was needed.

What to do if you’re bitten by a snake. Assume envenomation (the process by which venom is injected into some animal by the bite or sting of a venomous animal) has occurred. Stay very calm and still to prevent the venom from spreading. Symptoms vary according to the type of snake. Wash the bite area with a disinfectant if available. Remove jewelry (rings and watches) and tight-fitting clothing before swelling begins. Don’t move a swollen arm, hand, foot or leg, to decrease the spread of venom. If possible, use a splint to prevent moving the bitten limb. Keep the swollen extremity below the level of your heart. Go to a medical facility ASAP to start treatment with antivenom and antibiotics. Antivenom works best within the first four hours after a snake bite, and it doesn’t work after 8-10 hours, so don’t delay! Any snakebite victim should go to a hospital emergency department, unless the snake has been identified as non-venomous by an expert. Misidentification of the snake species could be fatal.

What NOT to do after a snake bite. Do NOT make an incision over the bite wound. Do not use a tourniquet except in cases of extreme envenomation, and then only if you’re trained in the procedure. If used incorrectly, a tourniquet restricts blood flow to the bitten area and may result in the need for amputation of the affected limb. DON’T use cryotherapy (ice, cold compresses, dry ice) because it restricts blood flow and may cause tissue death. DON’T drink alcohol; doing so causes the venom to spread faster. DON’T take aspirin or other pain medications that contain aspirin, as aspirin increases bleeding. Pain medications without aspirin are safe.

What to do if your dog is bitten by a snake. Do NOT make an incision over the bite wound and suck the venom from the wound. Instead, try to identify the snake (from a safe distance) by observing its size, color patterns and presence of a rattle on its tail. Examine your dog for fang marks. If your dog is bitten on a leg, wrap a constricting band (shirt sleeve or towel) snugly around his leg, just above the bite wound, to reduce the spread of venom. Your dog may lose his leg, but that’s better than losing his life. Head to your closest animal hospital immediately, while keeping your dog as still as possible.

Hopefully, you won’t encounter a poisonous snake in your home or yard. If you or your dog gets bitten, taking appropriate action right away will reduce the risk of serious harm to you and your pet.

Bottom Line: Consult your physician or veterinarian ASAP if you or your dog get bitten by a snake.

How long did it take you to spot the snake in this picture? Photo by Nancy Black