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Sunshine, Flowers and Snakes!

The long-awaited springtime sun brings us so much joy! Warmer days, pretty flowers, and… snakes! Eeek! As our daytime temperatures…

The long-awaited springtime sun brings us so much joy! Warmer days, pretty flowers, and… snakes! Eeek! As our daytime temperatures rise above 60 degrees, snakes come out of brumation (a reptile hibernation of sorts) and look for warm, sunny spots to siesta. In addition to warming up, it is also mating season. Snakes will be very active during warmer spring days.

It can happen in the blink of an eye… Your curious pup can encounter a snake and the next thing you know, you are in a race to the veterinarian emergency clinic. Learning more about snakes, taking some preventative measures, and teaching your dog some simple avoidance behaviors can help keep you and your dog much safer.

So, I have some good news, some better news, and some bad news. The bad news is that Virginia has around 32 native snakes! The good news is that only 3 of them are venomous. The even better news is that there is probably only one venomous snake you will ever encounter in the Richmond area. I feel a little better knowing that, don’t you? Learning the different kinds of snakes indigenous to our area will help you breathe an even greater sigh of relief.

There are plenty of snakes in central Virginia. Even if you live in a well-developed neighborhood, snakes can be found in your yard, under your porch, maybe even in your garage, or (heaven forbid) your house. Earlier this week, we encountered a snake inside our screened-in porch.

What kind of Non-Venomous snakes might I Encounter?

Don’t worry, we are not going to talk about all 32 snakes in Virginia. We are just going to talk about the more commonly found snakes in the Richmond area. The one we are all most familiar with is a black snake. But guess what, according to Virginia Living Magazine, there is no such thing as a black snake in Virginia! What we call a black snake could be a Northern black racer or an Eastern rat snake. They look remarkably alike and, um… they’re black. The difference between the two is that “racers” are only about 3-4 feet long, but the Eastern rat snake can get as long as 8 feet! They are non-venomous and non-threatening.

My husband and I had the opportunity to live on a farm in Goochland for a short period of time. Just a few days after moving in, “George” came up on our porch to welcome us. He was at least 6 feet long, and “lumpy”, meaning he probably just had a nice meal. We called the previous owner of the home who said, “Oh, that’s just George. Pick him up and take him back out to the barn.” Yeah, right! Fortunately, George went away on his own, but I think he could have swallowed my small dog in one gulp. Now that I know the size of an Eastern Rat snake, I am pretty sure that’s what he was. Scared the living daylights outta me!

Although they can be frightening-looking, water snakes are non-venomous and non-aggressive. In Virginia, there are three species of watersnake: the brown water snake, the northern water snake, and the plain-bellied water snake. While frolicking in the James River with your dog, you may encounter a northern water snake.

The northern water snake is brown/grey with some red and white. They are thick and robust and can be about 3 feet long. They are harmless… until you try to grab them! Then they will definitely bite you! If you see one, keep an eye on it, but just leave it alone. They will not come after you for no reason.

Water snakes swim with their bodies just below the surface of the water. Many people confuse a water snake with a venomous water moccasin. Water moccasins swim on top of the water, and the only place you might see a water moccasin in Virginia is near the coast.

The Garter snake, sometimes called a “gardener snake” is another snake often seen in our area. They are greenish in color with a distinct yellow or white stripe down the middle of the back. Between the stipes is a checkerboard pattern of black and green spots. They like to be near water, but it is not a requirement. Usually, you can find “moist” areas nearby when a garter snake is present. They are about 3 – 4 feet long.

Another snake common in Virginia is often mistaken for the garter snake. It is called a ribbon snake. It looks like a smaller version of a garter snake. It is thinner than a garter snake and has a long tail, measuring about 18 – 26 inches. It is a nervous little snake and moves quickly and will thrash about when caught. But there is no reason to catch it… just let it go.

There are two species of ring-necked snakes in Virginia: A Northern Ringneck and a Southern ringneck. Both are small and slender, and usually only 10-20 inches in length. They can be black, grey, or brown and the “ring” around their neck (called a “collar”) is off-white to beige. You will rarely see one of these snakes as they are very secretive. They hide out in rotting trees, logs, or under rocks, boards, and debris. They seldom come out in the open. Ring-necked snakes do not bite when caught.

Northern scarlet snakes are kind of pretty, I mean, if there is such a thing as a pretty snake. They are scarlet in color (duh!) with alternating black and white (yellowish) bars. They are only about 14 – 20 inches in length. They rarely bite. That’s not to say they won’t! But if they do, at least they are nonvenomous.

It is unlikely that you will see the nonvenomous Eastern Mud Snake, aka red-bellied mud snake, in the Richmond area, but it has happened. These snakes spend most of their time in moving water, like streams, canals, creeks, and lakes, more towards the eastern part of our state. They are usually 40- 50 inches in length, but the largest on record is 81 inches. They are thick with a glossy black color, with reddish “bars” under their belly and up the sides.

The Northern Watersnake lives along rivers, streams, and ponds. They are creepy creatures that like to scare visitors at Richmond’s James River Park. These snakes are about 54 inches long and thick. A Northern Watersnake is tan/brownish in color with crossbands of black to reddish-brown. They have muted yellowish stripes within the crossbands. Although they are not venomous, they will flatten their bodies and bite when agitated.

My Dog is bitten. What do I do now?

First, it would be very advantageous to successful treatment if you can establish what kind of snake bit your dog. If the snake is still visible and you can take a picture, that would be helpful to the medical professionals. However, use extreme caution as the snake may lunge at you. They can strike at least half the length of their body! Can you see the snake’s eyes? With one exception (the Coral snake, found mostly in the southern coastal planes of the US and further south), venomous snake’s eyes resemble a cat in that it has an oblong shape. It looks like a slit in the center of the eye. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to get that close. So, I have another idea…

If you did not see the snake, or you just do not want to get too close, you can determine if it was a poisonous or nonpoisonous – or nonvenomous snake by examining the bite mark. Nonvenomous snakes do not have fangs. Yes, they have teeth, but not fangs. If the snake bite is venomous, you will see two puncture wounds. It can be difficult to make out exactly what you are looking at as the wound swells and bleeds, and your dog will probably not want you to touch the area of the bite.

What happens if a nonvenomous snake bites my dog?

If your dog is bitten nonvenomous snake, he/she may cry out in pain. You will probably see swelling near the wound almost immediately. Your dog may begin salivating or have trouble breathing. Some dogs will vomit. Infection near the bite is the main concern with a nonvenomous snake bite. The most critical thing to do is to get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible to begin treatment.

Venomous snakes in our area

We mentioned that there are only 3 venomous snakes in Virginia: They are Rattlesnakes, Cottonmouths, and Copperheads. In the Richmond area, chances are you will probably only see a Copperhead. Very few Rattlesnakes are seen in Virginia. They are known to live in the western Piedmont and mountainous regions of Virginia and the wetland areas in Virginia’s southeastern corner. Cottonmouths (aka Water Moccasins, not to be confused with a harmless water snake) hang out in the swamps and streams of far southern and southeastern Virginia. However, an isolated population lives near the convergence of the James and Appomattox rivers in the Hopewell area. There have been other sightings around Colonial Heights.

The Copperhead is the one venomous snake you stand a pretty good chance of seeing if you spend time outdoors in our area. They are a distinctive, copper-colored snake with dark brown blotches across their back. They are usually very well camouflaged. You can find them virtually everywhere: In the woods, fields, high ground in swamps and marshes, hedgerows, ravines along creeks in agricultural and urban areas, rock walls, woodpiles, around barns, and houses, and more! I know… it’s frightening.

While Copperheads are scary, they are actually very placid reptiles. They will only bite if stepped on or threatened. If you see one, just leave it alone. It does not want to mess with you either. A bite by a copperhead is extremely painful, but it will rarely kill you.

What happens if a Copperhead bites my dog?

If your dog is bitten by a copperhead, there is a good chance that if treated quickly, the bite will not result in death. Yes, your dog can die, but a quick response can save them. Immediate medical attention is needed. The problem usually lies in your proximity to urgent care at the time of the bite. If you are out hiking, you could be a long way from an emergency veterinary clinic. Use your cell phone to call poison control and get a jump start on treatment.

First of all, calm down. If you are calm, your dog will take its cue from you. The calmer your dog, the slower the venom will disburse throughout the body. Also, keep your dog from walking. Pick them up and carry them. Walking increases blood circulation, further encouraging the spread of venom.

Here are a few more don’ts:
• Do not rinse or wash the wound.
• Do not apply ice.
• Do not try to remove the venom.
All these things may cause tissue damage.

Your dog will begin showing symptoms within minutes after being bitten. The severity of the symptoms depends on your dog’s overall health, size, age, and the location of the bite. Of course, the bite is extremely painful, and the wound will bleed. The skin will become discolored and begin to swell. Your dog may begin to drool and may have trouble breathing.

Hopefully, you can get your dog to the veterinarian right away. Over the next couple of hours, your dog may exhibit more serious symptoms like lethargy, vomiting, tremors, diarrhea, paralysis, seizures, or they may just collapse. I wish I could paint a pretty picture, but it is that serious.

Many people online recommend giving your dog antihistamines. Antihistamines, like Benadryl, will not cure your dog nor will they slow the spreading venom. All it really does is help to calm your dog and may help with some of the symptoms – like swelling or breathing issues.

Recovery time for your dog depends on how quickly you can get medical attention, and how badly your dog is affected. It could be a few days, or up to several weeks. Unfortunately, some dogs will have permanent damage. Long-term damage includes tissue necrosis or loss of function of the affected area. This type of damage is dependent on the severity of the bite and how quick and aggressive treatment was instituted.

Here is something interesting, not all copperhead bites are venomous. When a copperhead bites, Venom is only injected about 75% of the time. That sounds like a lot, but, obviously, means there is a 25% chance that no venom was released. That sounds a little better, don’t you think? Factors that determine how much venom was produced involve when the snake last fed, and how threatened they felt. Just as a side note, copperheads can bite even after they are dead. Their automatic reflexes from muscle cells can live up to six hours after death.

The Rattlesnake Vaccine for Dogs

Are you surprised there is a rattlesnake vaccine for dogs? I was. Probably because we don’t really live in a rattlesnake-prone area. And guess what? The rattlesnake vaccine provides protection against copperheads too. It functions in the body much like our COVID-19 vaccination in that the dog will typically have a less severe reaction and will likely recover more quickly. Protection only lasts about 6 months, so it is recommended that you have your dog vaccinated in the spring. Your veterinarian may suggest a booster. However, even if your dog is vaccinated, a visit to the veterinarian after a snake bite is vital.

How to help your dog avoid getting bitten by a snake

How can we help our furry friends avoid a snake bite? Unfortunately, our dogs are famous for sticking their noses where they don’t belong! That includes under bushes, behind logs, around rocks, and anywhere that looks like a fun place to explore. And those are the exact places that snakes love to hide. As we mentioned, the culprit could be hiding in your own backyard! Prevention goes a long way to keeping our pets safe. Here are a few suggestions in minimizing the possibility of a snake around your home:

• Snakes love to hide in tall grass so keeping your grass trimmed short is a huge help.
• Keep other yard vegetation “clean” and pruned. In other words, weed-eat or trim around the base of bushes and plants and maintain a visible clearance between the ground and the vegetation.
• Remove piles of debris like rocks, wood, and leaves from your yard. These are places that snakes love to hide.
• Remove a snake’s food source by using pet-safe rodent control to eliminate mice, moles, and other small vermin around your home.
• Use snake repellants around the home. There are several pet-safe repellants on the market that will prevent sakes from entering and nesting in your yard and garden areas.
• Make sure holes in the ground created by mice, voles, etc., are filled. Snakes will follow these holes while searching for a food source.
• Regularly clean behind patio furniture, potted plants, and grills on your patio area.
• If you have a woodpile for a fireplace, stack it at least 2 feet off the ground.

Other ideas

1. If you spent a lot of time in the great outdoors with your dog, the safest thing you can do is keep your dog on a leash and stay on the trail. I know… It is so much fun to watch your dog run and enjoy being off-leash, but it is just not safe.
2. Do some preplanning for your excursion. Know where the nearest animal emergency clinic is from where you and your pet will be.
3. Knowing how snakes relate to their environment will help with avoidance. Snakes rely on the environment to control the temperature of their bodies. If it is a sunny but cool day, a snake may sun itself on a rock. If it is hot outside, they may be trying to keep cool under bushes, wood, or rock. In the summer, they like to sun themselves in the morning and evening and hide during the hottest part of the day. They generally hunt for food at night. Nighttime is not the best time to be running around in the woods with your dog.
4. Please contact our Holiday Barn Pet ResortsProfessional Dog Trainers for snake avoidance training tips. They can be reached at our Midlothian Resort at (804) 794-5400, or our Glen Allen Resort at (804) 672-2200.

Final Note

Virginia has detailed laws with regards to killing snakes. Snakes are classified as a non-game species. This means that you cannot kill them in their native habitat, but if they threaten you or your property, you do have the right to kill them. This also applies to snakes that are threatening your livestock. Illegally killing a snake is a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail.

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