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NV Press: Dog owners should be alert for rattlesnakes

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Posted by W von Papinešu on September 13, 2002 at 21:19:52:

LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL (Nevada) 12 September 02 First Strike - Dog owners should be alert for rattlesnakes to prevent pets from being bitten (John Przybys)
Stoney is one snake-savvy dog.
The 7 1/2-year-old, 90-pound Walker coonhound has spent much of his life exploring the outdoors with his owner, Alex Heindl, curator of herpetology at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Stoney learned as a pup that even a curious dog doesn't mess with the rattlesnakes that inhabit Southern Nevada's deserts.
But that didn't keep Stoney from having an unfortunate, painful rendezvous with a sidewinder about five weeks ago.
Stoney has recovered nicely and shows no ill effects from his ordeal. But his story does underscore a sobering reality for valley dog owners.
Namely: The desert's a great place for an energetic pet to let off some steam. But, particularly around this time of year, dog owners should keep an eye out for Southern Nevada's reptilian residents.
Granted, most Southern Nevada canines -- like most of their owners -- will live their entire lives here without ever seeing a rattlesnake in the wild.
Nonetheless, Bill Taylor of Mountain Vista Animal Hospital said his veterinary hospital sees probably three or four cases of snakebitten dogs each year.
Similarly, Randy Winn of Black Mountain Animal Hospital figures he sees about three to five veterans of snake-canine encounters each year.
Most are outdoorsy dogs whose owners are "out at the lake on weekends or doing some camping, and the dog is out running around and finds (a snake)," Winn said.
Heindl began taking Stoney into the field with him when the dog was about 7 months old.
"On one of our first trips, I came across a large rattlesnake and I knew that, eventually, he was going to come into contact with them on his own," Heindl said. "So, I got hold of his collar and let him approach the snake until I thought he was getting toward the edge of strike range, then called him back and said, `No!'
"I did this about three times, then I let him go. I had to see if he'd learned anything at all. He moved back up, looked at the snake, sniffed it, then he backed off on his own."
Stoney's winning streak with snakes ended on the morning of Aug. 5. It was about 9:20, and Heindl and Stoney were walking in the desert near state Route 160 and the end of Rainbow Boulevard.
At some point during Stoney's wanderings, a snake Heindl now suspects was a sidewinder bit the dog on his right paw. It was only when Stoney held up his paw as they were preparing to leave that Heindl noticed the swelling and two small blood marks.
That, Heindl said, is "when I thought, `Oh, boy. He got tagged.' "
Heindl suspects the encounter was unexpected for both dog and snake.
"The sidewinder is very nocturnal, and very commonly they'll wind up their hunt at the end of the night and just coil beneath a bush or something, and just scrunch into the sand or loose substrate and sleep," Heindl said.
"What I think happened was that Stoney was just walking and didn't see the snake, and stepped right next to it."
A dog's feet and face are prime spots for snakes to strike. In front paw bites, Winn said, "they'll usually kind of bat at the snake with their foot, and that's where they'll get bit."
And, Taylor said, the face is a prime spot for snakebite because a dog that's approaching a snake out of curiosity tends to do it nose first.
Most snakebites to dogs occur in the fall and spring, the veterinarians say, mostly because those are the seasons when the chances of snake-dog -- and snake-human -- interaction increases.
"Snakes operate best within about 65 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit," Heindl said. "Much below 60 and they're not warm enough to be able to catch food or evade predators. Over 95 and they're just too hot. And if these critters are caught out in temperatures much above 100 or 105 for more than 10 minutes, they're dead."
The primary activity periods for encountering snakes during the day are spring and then late summer and fall, usually in the morning, Heindl noted.
The effect of a snakebite on a dog will -- as it does in humans -- depend on several things, including the type and size of rattlesnake, the size and general health of the dog, and whether the snake injected venom with the bite.
"You can have what you call a dry bite," Taylor said. "It's a bite, but no venom is injected."
Puncture marks may or may not be visible. But, Winn said, an envenomed bite will produce significant swelling in the area of the bite almost immediately.
"Typically, even in the face you're going to get really severe swelling of the entire region, not just where (the dog) got bitten," Winn said.
A bitten dog also may show signs that it's going into shock, Taylor said.
"If you look at the gums, they should be nice and pink and can start to go white or grayish as they start to go into shock," he said.
Heindl performed the first aid veterinarians recommend: He lifted Stoney into his truck, kept the dog calm and comfortable, and immediately took him to the veterinarian's.
"I think, at that point, I was probably more nervous than he was, because I knew what had happened," Heindl said.
Winn, whose clinic treated Stoney, recalls that by the time Stoney arrived, "it was 30 or 40 minutes after the bite and the leg already was two to three times what it should have been."
In humans, snakebite treatment generally involves the use of antivenin. However, Winn said the cost and scarcity of antivenin usually precludes its use in animals.
"In most cases you can save the animal with just symptomatic treatment -- treatment for shock, secondary infections, and things like that," he said.
Stoney returned home two days after the bite, although Heindl said it took a few more days before the dog's foot was back to normal.
"When he came home, you could sense he was just happy to be home," said Heindl's wife, Lee. "He just curled up and took a long nap."
Hunters who take dogs into the field often sign their animals up for snake avoidance classes that, but for use of a shock collar, are similar to Heindl's training with Stoney.
But even such classes are no guarantee that a dog always will steer clear of a snake. For most dog owners, simple awareness is key.
First, Heindl said, "be aware that this is a possibility -- that if they are out beyond the edges of developed areas, they're in rattlesnake country here."
In addition, Heindl said, "people who go out there would be well-advised to become familiar with what the snakes here are and how to identify a rattlesnake."
Then, Heindl said, prepare yourself for the reality that "if it happens to your dog, you're going to be going through a couple days of hell yourself."

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