WHEN SNAKES ABOUND, SO DO QUESTIONS ABOUT THEM

by Whit Gibbons

August 29, 2010


Last week's column noted that U.S. snakes are most abundant in late summer and early fall because baby snakes are being born. This leads to questions about snakes. The two that follow are applicable to many geographic areas.

Q: I have a small dog that keeps finding snakes. He has not been bitten, but he goes into attack mode when he comes across a snake. Would a copperhead, rattlesnake or cottonmouth bite hurt him? Would any of the nonvenomous snakes bite him and, if so, with what effect?

A: I know of few dogs killed outright by the bite of a venomous snake. A bite from a big rattlesnake or cottonmouth could be lethal to a dog, but I do not know of any killed by a copperhead. A bite from any of the large pit vipers can make a dog swell up considerably at the site of the bite. Dogs are usually bitten around the face, head or shoulders because the dog is usually sticking its nose where it does not belong. Of the larger nonvenomous species like rat snakes, kingsnakes and watersnakes or any of the other nearly 50 species of harmless snakes in the eastern United States, none is going to hurt a dog in a serious way by biting it.

Q: We have cottonmouths, copperheads and rattlesnakes around the woods and along the stream near our house. When our young grandchildren visit us, we are concerned about their playing outdoors. I have never seen venomous snakes except under bushes, coiled up on logs around the stream or crossing roads. So there is little likelihood that the grandchildren will run into a snake, but it seems to me that venomous snakes are not good to have around. Should we take any special precautions when the grandchildren visit?

A: Clearly, an encounter between a child and a venomous snake might end badly. But four things must occur before the problem becomes serious. First, the child must actually encounter a snake. This is not a frequent occurrence even in the Southeast, where snakes can be common. Herpetologists who go out looking for snakes often spend hours searching, without finding one. Second, the snake must be one of the venomous species. The odds are better than 6 to 1 in most places in the eastern U.S. that a snake found in the wild will be a harmless one.

Third, if the snake is venomous (that is, a pit viper or coral snake), it must actually bite the person. The chances of your stumbling upon a venomous snake that bites you are slim. You are more likely to be struck by lightning. If you see the snake before getting close enough to be bitten, there is no excuse for suffering snakebite. Even a child can be taught to back away from a snake and watch it from a distance. I taught my children, and am now teaching my grandchildren, that if they see a snake, they are to look at it and not go near it unless I tell them it is a harmless variety that they are allowed to catch.

The fourth thing that must happen is that the snake must deliver sufficient venom to cause a problem. Many bites to people are dry bites in which no venom is injected. With regard to copperheads, I have not heard of anyone, including children, who has died from a copperhead bite. Yet this is the venomous species that bites more people in the United States every year than any other species.

Unfortunately, tragic events sometimes happen, and occasionally children suffer lethal bites from venomous snakes. This is a terrible thing when it happens. Although the risk of snakebite with children is exceedingly rare, being concerned about snakes and taking precautionary measures would not be amiss in many regions of the country. Snakes and other wildlife have much to offer us in the form of environmental gratification, and we ought to respect nature but not fear it. We should teach children to do the same.


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