An evening stroll through Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park with their chocolate labs Toby and Katie took an unexpected turn when Nicola and John Shanks noticed Toby limping.
The couple were about one kilometre into the park from the red gate, off of the main trail on a narrower but well-used path, when their seven-year-old dog Toby started licking his paw.
“We checked for cactus but couldn’t find any. He walked along the path a little further but held up the left front paw, hobbling on three legs. My husband and I inspected it and became more and more concerned as he was unable to use the foot at all,” said Nicola.
When the Shanks’ realized their dog could no longer walk, they made the decision for John to hike back to their vehicle to get a blanket they could use to carry their 100 pound dog out of the park.
“As I waited with Toby I noticed his foot was beginning to swell a little and I wondered if he had broken a bone, twisted it somehow or had a cactus spike deeply embedded. I tried to calm him and occasionally tried to help him move but mostly he was looking stressed, panting and whimpering so we didn’t get far,” she said.
When her husband returned, they lifted Toby onto the blanket and with the help of a couple of young women and a cyclist, they were able to get Toby to their car.
It took half an hour to get there and the swelling was increasing rapidly and moving up the leg.
“I discussed the situation with the veterinarian (on a mobile phone) as we walked and we wondered if it could be a snake bite. We knew that the dog must be assessed quickly and Dr. Mehl, at Vernon Veterinary Clinic, agreed to meet us at the clinic,” said Nicola.
“When we arrived, Dr. Mehl took a closer look at the ballooning foot and leg. He noticed the serosanguineous drainage seeping through the skin and confirmed that Toby had been bitten by a rattlesnake.”
Because it had been more than 15 minutes since the bite and there is no anti-venom for dogs, Toby was in grave danger.
He was given high levels of IV fluids, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, strong pain medication and after two days at the clinic he was able to come home and is expected to make a full recovery.
According to veterinarian Dr. Herbert Mehl, the outcome of a rattlesnake bite varies due to many factors.
The size and age of the snake determines the potency of the venom, how long it has been since the snake ate, how deep the bite went, where on the body the bite occurs, how long the bite lasts, the size and weight of the dog, how healthy the dog is before the bite, and how quickly it receives treatment.
“If one considers that the toxins within snake venom are supposed to immobilize and digest its prey, it is easy to understand why snake venom can have so many different effects on its victim, including toxic effects on the kidneys, destruction of muscle fibers, bleeding disorders, intense pain from tissue necrosis (dying off), swelling, severe drop in blood pressure and shock, paralysis, seizures and, rarely, even death,” said Mehl.
Mehl recommends that if you suspect your dog has been bitten by a rattlesnake go to a vet as quickly as possible. The dog shouldn’t walk so carrying the animal to the car is preferred, try to keep the dog calm, do not use a tourniquet or try to suck out the venom and do not ice the area.
The Northern Pacific rattlesnake, which is found locally, is a non-aggressive snake.
“Their first response to potential danger is to stay quiet and camouflaged,” said Susan Cousineau, education coordinator at Allan Brooks Nature Centre. “Their second response is escape. If cornered, however, rattlesnakes will rattle their tails vigorously while forming an aggressive coil with the head raised and the neck in an ‘s’ shaped curve.
“Striking is a last resort, usually employed if cornered by a persistent predator or occasionally when suddenly stepped on (when the snake is facing immediate physical injury).”
She says the best way to keep yourself and pets from being bitten by rattlesnakes is to be vigilant when walking, remove headphones so you don’t miss a warning rattle if you get too close, avoid or be careful in areas with south-facing slopes, lots of mixed rock and brush and narrow trails.
She recommends staying on trails that are wide enough to walk down the centre with your feet clear of the edges, wearing boots with a higher ankle, full-length loose-fitting pants and walking with hiking poles so that you have something to push back vegetation hanging over trails if necessary.
Cousineau and Mehl both agree that rattlesnakes aren’t seeking out people and animals to bite and as long as they are left alone, by people staying on trails and keeping their dogs leashed, a potential bite can be avoided.
“Above all, don’t let your fear of snakes keep you inside. Rattlesnake bites are extremely rare and with a little caution and staying aware of your surroundings, it’s highly unlikely that you will ever even encounter a snake, let alone be bitten by one,” said Cousineau.