After enjoying a refreshing dip in the cool creek on a hot summer day, my little family of three hiked back up the mountain to our home. While making our way through tall grass, the inevitable happened: my dog, Zygo, was bit by a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). I didn’t see the snake, and she didn’t yelp or jump, but as we walked along, she got uncharacteristically tired and was stopping to sit every 10 feet. Not knowing what was wrong, we began carrying her. Very quickly, the left side of her snout began to swell, and I thought, “Oh shit, snakebite!” Sure enough, two small puncture wounds, about an inch apart, became visible next to her nose.
Where we live, the Copperhead population is prolific and we see them all the time. Just over the ridge from our place, a whole holler is named for the Copperhead. Rattlesnakes live here too, but are not seen very often. This is why I assume Zygo met a Copperhead, even though I didn’t see the snake.
Copperheads are pit vipers, along with rattlesnakes. I have heard so many myths and theories about Copperheads and their bites, it is hard to know what it actually true. All snakes, especially venomous ones, are too often misunderstood and despised in the modern human mindset. In areas of this country there are rattlesnake roundups, where thousands of snakes are captured for a mass killing that includes gross spectacles of snakes with mouths sewn shut for photo opts or snake skinning contests. In these snake prisons, you can hear thousands of rattles, which is the snakes’ equivalent of a fearful scream. As someone who is desperately trying to unlearn the hateful lessons of my culture, I am in the process of reconciling my relationship with snakes. Rattlesnakes are featured in a new book, Carnivore Minds, by G.A. Bradshaw (1). This important book merges studies of ethology with psychology and neuroscience to paint a more accurate picture of the social and emotional lives of animals labeled as dangerous and cruel. I was touched by the stories of rattlesnake relationships shared in the chapter, and inspired to spend more time appreciating these neighbors of mine. (The awesome photo below shows a mama Copperhead and her babies. I found it online and do not know who to credit.)
Copperhead venom is rarely fatal, though I have heard accounts of small dogs dying from the bites, including one case this past spring in my aunt’s neighborhood. Dogs seem to handle these bites better than humans, but even us two-leggeds typically have a full recovery after a longer period of time. Everyone always says that Copperheads do not want to bite you, but only will as a last resort; like if you step on them or curiously sniff them with your cute little doggie snout. The Copperhead has amazing camouflage and trusts in this protection, only striking as a last-ditch defense. And even when they do bite, they apparently often give a warning bite with a small amount of venom. There are many cases where the bites are completely dry. Thank you Copperheads; we humans don’t deserve your gentleness!
Despite knowing all this, I have still felt nervous about snakebites, dreading what seems to be unavoidable in these parts. But it happened, and we survived, and I thought it might be helpful to share a little write-up about this case study. In the weeks prior to Zygo’s bite, I had a close call with a Copperhead, and felt inspired to put together a snakebite kit for our holler, complete with a written protocol for humans and dogs. That way, if someone were to get bit while I’m away (or if I get bit and freak out), my thoughts would be right there with everything needed.
We opted out of veterinary care because there isn’t a whole lot more they offer besides IV fluids and doggie pain meds (and an expensive bill). They do not use anti-venoms for dogs in our area. With this in mind, I thought Zygo would be more comfortable at home, so we cared for her using:
- Liquid Benadryl
- Echinacea tincture
- Vitamin C
- Skullcap tincture
- Cleavers tincture
- Raw eggs
Below I will share how it all played out. The dosing amounts were decided because Zygo weighs 35lbs. If you reference this protocol, consider how much the dog weighs and adjust accordingly. Also, use common sense and your own research, of course. I share my explanations for these medicines at the end of the summary. I’m sure there’s a thousand other things that could be helpful.
**Please note, I used only meds/herbs that I know to be safe with canines. Not all OTC meds and herbs that are safe for humans are safe for dogs, so I specifically gathered items that I know have a place in canine care.
EVENING OF THE BITE: Zygo was bit around 5pm and we immediately removed her collar. While we carried her half a mile home, the left side of her snout swelled up. When we got back, I gave her 25mg Benadryl and 3mL Echinacea. The swelling hindered her ability to eat and receive medicine in food, so I administered this via a syringe into the right side of her mouth (she didn’t enjoy it, even with the bubble gum flavor!). I also dropped some Echinacea tincture onto the bite marks, though she did not want me anywhere near her snout. She was clearly in a lot of pain and was breathing rapidly. Her discomfort and breathing seemed to increase when I stared at her with concern, so I tried to act like nothing was wrong, sneaking looks every 5 minutes or so. Poor creature just wanted to be left alone in her anguish.
The two puncture wounds began oozing dark blood after 2 hour or so. At this time, I gave her 1mL of Echinacea and 1mL of Skullcap. After another two hours, she was willing to lick up raw egg, so I added another 1mL Echinacea, and 500mg Vitamin C (crushed pill). Just before midnight, I gave her another 25mg of Benadryl, 1mL Echinacea, and 1mL Skullcap in another raw egg. The swelling was expanding down her neck. Because her face was swollen, she was not able to rest her head and sleep. Rather she just sat there drowsily bobbing her head, looking exhausted and miserable. Around 2am, I was able to gently coax her head down on the non-swollen side. As soon as her head touched the ground, she was out until 8am. I slept next to her and dreamt of Copperheads.
First evening summary of meds dispensed over 6 hours:
- 50mg Benadryl
- 6mL Echinacea
- 2mL Skullcap
- 500mg Vitamin C
- 2 raw eggs
DAY 1: The next morning, the swelling had significantly shifted from her snout to her neck. The snout looked practically normal, but her neck was huge. When we woke up, she was willing to walk with me to a creek about 100ft from our cabin. After she got a solid drink, I started walking back. She just sat there and looked at me. I said, “No worries, I got you!” and carried her back. She rested all morning, rotating between her various dens. I fed her 1 raw egg with fermented oats, and added 25mg Benadryl, 1 mL Echinacea, 1mL Skullcap, 500mg Vitamin C, and sprinkled Turmeric powder on top. By the afternoon, she really perked up and even barked when our neighbors came to visit. I gave her another 1mL of Echinacea in a raw egg. We went for a stroll in the evening, and she happily trailed along with her big saggy neck. Her dinner consisted of salmon with one last dose of 25mg Benadryl, 1mL Echinacea, and 1mL Cleavers. Though her swelling stayed fairly consistent throughout the day, her disposition seemed to be improving very much. The bite marks no longer oozed blood, but they were very sensitive and she did not want me cleaning the dried blood or applying anything. She slept very well that night.
Summary of meds dispensed on the first full day:
- 50mg Benadryl
- 3mL Echinacea
- 1mL Skullcap
- 1mL Cleavers
- 500mg Vitamin C
- 1 tsp Turmeric powder
- 2 raw eggs
DAY 2: The next morning I found a dog with a much smaller neck! I was very surprised to see the swelling had gone down about 75%. She was able to fully yawn again, and she had much more energy; back to patrolling the neighborhood, herding the chickens, and enthusiastically washing my ears. I fed her more oats and raw egg for breakfast, topped with 1mL Echinacea, 500mg Vitamin C, and Turmeric powder. She received the same for dinner. In the evening, she allowed me to gently clean the bite wounds, which were crusty with blood. Afterwards, I applied some wound powder (made of powdered Yarrow, Usnea, and Goldenseal).
Summary of meds dispensed on the second full day:
- 2mL Echinacea
- 500mg Vitamin C
- 1 tsp Turmeric powder
- 2 raw eggs
- wound powder topically
DAY 3: If you met Zygo on this day, you would never know she was recovering from a Copperhead bite. She was about 90% back to normal. I only continued with a dose of 500mg Vitamin C, and didn’t feel the need to administer any herbs. At some point in the day, she re-injured the bite marks from pushing a rock with her nose (a common pastime for Zygo). I dropped some Echinacea tincture onto the wound, and applied some more wound powder.
For the next three days, I gave her a daily dose of 500mg Vitamin C.
By day 4, she had completely returned to her usual state of being.
The only obvious lingering effect was the bite marks, which can still be seen if you look closely (a few weeks later). Since the bite, we have noticed an occasional slight movement (tremor?) in her lower jaw, and she has become more affectionate than before (lots of hugging and kissing!). Let’s hope she has learned some appropriate snake boundaries!
It is impossible to know for certain why Zygo’s recovery was so quick and easy-going. I have heard other cases where dogs are down-for-the-count for many days or weeks. There are many factors that could play a part:
- Maybe the snake did not inject much venom. Since I did not see the snake, I don’t know how big it was, how long it was attached to Zygo’s snout, etc. I assume it was fairly quick because we were walking along and didn’t even notice anything amiss with Zygo. It would seem very risky for a snake to hang on to a dog’s snout since the dog could then easily retaliate and bite back, so it was likely a quick strike. But her swelling was certainly immediate and significant.
- Maybe Zygo’s young age (15 months) attributed to a strong immune response.
- Maybe the herbs & meds helped her body move through the envenomation quickly.
- Maybe it was a combination of these factors.
Why did I choose these medicines?
(Again, I used only meds/herbs that I know to be safe with canines. Not all OTC meds and herbs that are safe for humans are safe for dogs, so I specifically gathered items that I know have a place in canine care.)
BENADRYL (Diphenhydramine). I’ve read/heard about many people using Benadryl for doggie snakebites, though I don’t have a full understanding of why to give an anti-histamine. It can certainly be helpful when an overwhelming immune response causes more problems with excessive swelling and inflammation. Though, if we act from an understanding that the body is intelligent/capable in it’s response, I don’t know why we would counter it. BUT since it seems to be a go-to, I used it. It’s also a sedative, and sleep is probably the best medicine of all. I found it helpful to have the liquid form on hand in this case because Zygo was not able to eat with the initial swelling, and it would have been difficult to get a crushed pill down.
ECHINACEA (Echinacea angustifolia/purpurea) is a traditional snakebite herb, with ample ethnobotanical records showing this use in many North American indigenous groups (including the Dakota, Montana, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Winnebago, and Sioux(2)). Echinacea is immune-stimulating and regulates a healthy inflammation response. It is indicated for acute situations. This is typically used in a high dose for a short period of time (>2 weeks). For example, I gave little Zygo 6mL in the first 6 hours; that is equivalent to giving myself about 20 mL. She immediately seemed to improve, so I slowed down my dosage over the next few days. (Sometime after the bite, I found her contemplating next to the purple cone flowers and snapped this picture. I wonder if she was extending her gratitude.)
I used SKULLCAP (Scutellaria lateriflora) as an herb for pain relief and to calm anxiety. It must have been stressful for Zygo to experience new and uncomfortable sensations, so Skullcap seemed appropriate.
CLEAVERS (Galium aparine). By the end of the first full day after the bite, her neck seemed to be a full pouch of inflammation soup. I administered Cleavers to support the movement of her lymph. After just one dose, the swelling went down 75% by the next morning. I can’t say for sure it was the Cleavers, but I definitely want to note the correlation.
VITAMIN C is a pretty safe immune support supplement for dogs. It increases white blood cell count and has shown to shorten wound healing time. It is also cheap and easily accessible. I crushed pills and added them to the eggs or other food. (I’ve also used Vitamin C to treat Zygo’s UTIs).
RAW EGGS for doggie snakebites are a folk tradition in the area where I live. My bear hunter neighbors swear the raw eggs “remove the toxins from the body”. I have heard a couple miracle stories centered around raw eggs fed to pets with serious wounds. Perhaps it’s the anti-inflammatory selenium, or the lutein and zeaxanthin, or maybe because it’s a great source of protein. It’s probably worth noting that most folks around here keep chickens, so the eggs they give their dogs are fresh from the coop.
Hope this information can be helpful to you and your furry friends.
And let’s be honest, this post is really just an excuse to share pictures of this sweet pup.
(1) Carnivore Minds, by G.A. Bradshaw
(2) Native American Ethnobotany, by Daniel Moerman