Snakebit in Sweet Home: Not common, but it's happened
August 26, 2020
I always told folks that if they wanted to get a veterinarian to treat Salmon Disease in their dog, don’t go to Kansas.
Likewise, if you’re going to get a veterinarian to treat a snake bite, don’t come to Sweet Home.
But actually, I have treated one local snake bite, and it was on a horse.
The call came in the early afternoon on a hot August day in1977.
“Doc, I have a horse with a large swelling on his chest,” Bob said. “I was wondering if you could come up and get a look at him.”
Bob was a young man, maybe a few years older than me. He was well built, and his skin was deeply tanned. I suspect it was a farmer’s tan. He wore a wide brim hat with a snakeskin band on it.
“Sure, Bob, I can get up this afternoon,” I said. “I will need directions, and maybe a hint as to what you think might have happened.”
“I live on a small place up on the top of Fern Ridge,” Bob said. “It’s on the right side of the road, has a large white house and an old barn; you can’t miss it.”
“And, do you have any idea what happened to the horse?” I asked again.
Bob pointed to the band on his hat. “We have a few of these critters around up there. We see them more this time of the year. They tell me there is an old rock quarry over the hill from us a little way.”
A little later, I pulled onto Bob’s place. He had the horse tied to the fence a short distance up the hill from the barn. I surmised that what Bob was seeing was a large abscess if it was a snake bite. I was not confident that a snake could strike a horse in the chest, however.
Looking at the horse, a large grey gelding named Joe, everything was fine except for the sizable fluctuant swelling on the right side of his chest, over his pectoral muscles.
I shaved the swelling. There, right in the middle, were two deep red fang marks.
“It must be a snake bite, all right,” I said. “But I don’t see how a snake could strike this high.”
“I have this road that runs up the hill, and there is a steep bank on one side,” Bob explained. “It could easily happen if the snake was on that bank.”
“How many snakes do you see around the place?” I asked.
“Not many. This one,” Bob says as he points to his hatband. “And the one that bit the horse. That’s enough for me. Folks say this is about the only area where they are found around Sweet Home.”
“How did you find that one?” I asked, pointing to the hatband.
“I walked into the barn one afternoon, the cat was standing in a corner with a mouse in his mouth. This snake has him cornered in a standoff,” Bob said, pointing to his hatband again. “I ran back to the house and got my .22 pistol and decided the argument in favor of the cat.”
“Some story. That might make a person a little worried about doing anything under the barn,” I said.
“For sure,” Bob said. “What do you think about this bite on the horse?”
“I think this happened a few days ago, maybe more,” I said. “Just a big abscess right now. I will open that, drain the pus and flush the wound. Then give antibiotics and tetanus vaccination, and that should do it.
“You will need to keep the area clean and sprayed for flies. I will come back in a few days and remove the drain. It should be a piece of cake.
If he were a racehorse, I would be a little worried about whether that muscle under this abscess was damaged, but it shouldn’t be a problem. And if it was damaged, there isn’t anything we could do about it.”
So that was about that. I scrubbed up the area. I injected a little Lidocaine before making a sizable hole in the abscess. The pus that drained was really rank smelling, not typical at all.
After flushing the wound with hydrogen peroxide and followed with Betadine, I sutured a Penrose drain in the opening. I gave a hefty dose of long-acting penicillin and a tetanus booster.
Joe was fine until I sprayed the area for flies, but he settled right down when it was over. I tossed the can of fly spray to Bob.
“Twice a day; the more, the better. I will be back on the third day and check things over and get the drain out. I would expect things to heal fine.”
That was close to the extent of my snake bite experiences in Sweet Home until one evening when a guy hustled through the door, right at closing time. He had his wife and five kids and a hound dog with him. His name was Jim.
“We just moved into town a few minutes ago,” Jim says. “We moved from Susanville, Calif. This hound was snake bit a couple of days before we moved, I was hoping you could get a look at him. He is really swollen.”
So the bite was at least three days old; this was probably going to be a replay of the bite wound on Joe.
Jim lifted Burno onto the exam table. Burno was a large blue tick hound. He had more black on him than many blue ticks, but some black ticking on white on his legs and front shoulders. His exam showed an elevated temperature and a submandibular abscess.
“I was afraid the swelling was going the shut off his airway,” Jim said.
“It is pretty loose; shouldn’t be a problem just yet,” I said as I opened Burno’s mouth and used my finger to explore the back of his mouth and upper airways.
“How do you do that without getting bit?” Jim asked.
“I keep my thumb on the roof of his mouth with quite a bit of pressure,” I said.
“That keeps his mouth open, that and then you have to be quick. His airway is fine. This is just a large abscess at this point in time. I will drain it with local anesthesia, flush it, and place a drain for a few days.
“That and antibiotics should be all he needs.”
Burno’s treatment was identical to Joe’s except for the tetanus vaccine. Dogs are pretty resistant to tetanus and are not routinely vaccinated.
So now, having treated two cases of snake bites, both multiple days old, I could almost call myself a novice. I have talked to veterinarians in other areas about how they handled snake bites, and there is a wide variety of opinions.
Antivenom is expensive, but many veterinary patients survive without it.
– David Larsen is a retired veterinarian who practiced 40 years in Sweet Home. More of his stories are available on his blog at docsmemoirs.com.