Vets treating more snake-bitten dogs

Jun. 16, 2014 @ 11:11 AM

Helen Kalevas nearly lost her best friend to a snake bite recently, but the Jack Russell Terrier pulled through.

Her 10-pound dog, Opal, was attacked May 25 by a copperhead outside her home in rural Orange County, and spent four days at Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital on Morreene Road in Durham. Anti-venom and blood transfusions saved her, but at a cost of $4,000 and sleepless nights.
“My significant other had the dog with him off-leash and was watching her,” Kalevas said. “All of a sudden, she jumped and yelped, and he saw her sitting down with fang marks on her leg.”
They rushed her to the hospital.
“She was there for four days on fluids, painkillers, antibiotics and antihistamines,” Kalevas said. “She really went through the ringer.”  
This is the time of year when canine snake bites spike, according to Dr. Mike Grafinger, a veterinarian at the West Durham hospital.
During spring and summer, he said, it’s typical for the hospital to see six snake-bitten dogs a day on weekends and between one and three each weekday. Most are copperhead attacks.
“It’s not that there are more copperheads,” Grafinger said. “It’s just that dogs sniff these snakes out and stick their nose where the snake is lying, and the dog gets bitten on the leg, nose, face, neck and sometimes the tongue.”
Grafinger said the hospital is well-equipped to treat snake bites. Even so, about 5 percent of dogs die from the attacks, and small breeds are most vulnerable.
“We can treat them as outpatients with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and pain meds, but we always recommend admitting the dogs,” he said.
Time is crucial when a dog is bitten, because anti-venom must be given as soon as possible, he said.
Snake bites don’t always happen during the day or in the woods, according to Grafinger.
“They can happen on dog walks or letting a dog out in the back yard,” he said.
Bite signs include a swollen face and neck, and often two puncture wounds on the dog’s nose or elsewhere.
“It’s very painful, so if the dog is hand-shy, you don’t want someone touching him around the nose,” he said.
Grafinger’s advice is to walk your dog on a leash and watch where he’s sniffing.
“If they start sniffing in leaves and junk and find a snake, that’s when they get bitten,” he said.
Copperheads and other snakes can be active at night, as Grafinger learned one day after leaving work.

“It was 9 p.m. and I pulled into my driveway and saw a copperhead there,” he said. “If I had gone to check the mail, I would have stepped on him.”

The Carolinas Poison Center, headquartered in Charlotte, reports a 75 percent increase in snake bites to humans this year in North Carolina. In April and May 2013, 102 snake bites were reported. This year, the number is up to 179 for the period.

For Kalevas, the ordeal was a nightmare, but Opal is back on her feet and improving daily.

“It cost a few thousand dollars, but they saved her,” Kalevas said. “And that’s the bottom line, because I love my little dog.”