Watch for snakes

The hot summery weather is probably one of the most significant factors making the Okanagan a unique and attractive area for residents and tourists.

We are now in the prime of spring and starting to enjoy a variety of the outdoorsy activities.

However, we must remember that humans are not the only beings active in the warm outdoors. Among  other wildlife, one of the animal encounters likely to occur in this season is with snakes.

Snakes are cold-blooded creatures, meaning they hibernate during the winter and are active during spring and summer.

There are few types of snakes in our area, but only one type is venomous — the western rattlesnake.
It is 0.6-1.2 metres long. It can be easily recognized by its two unique physical characteristics:

  • a triangular-shaped head
  • a thick tail ending in a series of rattles.

It is tan to pale green, with a series of dark brown to olive ovals along its back. The distinctive head has two holes below the nostrils connecting to a heat-sensing organ (heat pits), which are used to sense prey. The eyes have a distinct vertical cat’s-eye pupils. 

Rattlesnakes hibernate in communal dens on rocky hillsides. In the spring, they disperse through grasslands and forests to areas with rodent populations.

There is one more type of large snake in our area that can mistakenly be recognized as rattlesnake — the great basin gopher snake, also knows as the bull snake.

The gopher snake, which is not venomous, is the largest snake in our area, reaching up to 1.8 metres. It  is light tan with dark-brown markings. Along the back are dark rectangular patches (opposed to the oval or round markings on a rattlesnake).

The head is small with a dark line running through the eye and over the forehead. The eyes are pale with a dark round pupil. Their tail tapers gradually to a thin point. The gopher snake may bite if feels threatened, but its bite isn’t venomous.  

All snakes, the rattlesnake included, are shy creatures that do everything they can to stay out of the way.

They cannot hear, but are very sensitive to vibrations. If a snake feels something large approaching, such as a human or a dog walking on a trail, its first reaction is to hide.

It may also shake its rattles to warn you of its presence. A rattlesnake bites non-prey only as a last resort when it is close to being stepped on, or when another animal gets too close.

A snake encounter is something that has to stay in pet-owners’ minds. Dogs suffering from snakebites is something that I have to deal with quite often during the warm weather season.

In fact, just in the last week, we saved a dog’s life after it had been bitten by a snake.

Dogs are curious creatures, which makes their encounter with rattlesnakes especially dangerous because they tend to get too close to the snake, and therefore get bitten on their faces or necks.

The reaction to the venom is a severe inflammation and swelling. The swelling of the face and neck can lead to breathing difficulties.  

If you suspect your dog was bitten by a snake, rush it to your vet. We are very lucky to be able to offer anti-venom. On top of anti-venom, other medical means and respiratory support, are being used in order to control the tissue injury caused by the venom.

The prognosis of healing from a snake bite depends of three factors:

  • The location of the bite
  • the concentration of the venom (the earlier the season, the more concentrated the venom is)
  • how long after the bite the medical intervention was given. Immediate intervention and care improve the outcome of the treatment.  

As for prevention, the key is control. When walking your dog, always keep it on a leash.

As for your own yard, the rule of thumb is that if a mouse can invade, so can a snake.

However, unlike mice, which can chew their way in, snakes rely on existing holes and unsealed gaps. Most access points are just above the foundation of the house or in basement window wells. Another common entry point is under basement doors.

Make sure all of these areas are sealed. A special snake proof fence is also available. The best time to snake-proof your house is from late fall to early spring when snakes are in their dens and unlikely to be in the building or under siding.

Unfortunately, despite all safety measurements, dog-snake encounters can still happen and can be fatal to the pet.

I was fortunate to be able to save the dog’s life this past week, thanks to its responsible owner who brought him in right away.

Being mindful and proactive in avoiding a snake encounter is the first step in protecting your beloved pet.

However, if your pet has a sudden severe swelling on its body, don’t hesitate and rush to the vet — it’s better to be safe than sorry.


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About the Author

Dr. Moshe Oz owns Rose Valley Veterinary Hospital, a small animal veterinary practice in West Kelowna.

Dr. Oz has deep love and affection for animals. It was his childhood dream to become a veterinarian, a dream that he has fulfilled when he graduated with honours from KUVM,on 2006. Dr. Oz's special interest is internal medicine and surgery.

In his free time Dr. Oz enjoys training and racing triathlons, including the legendary Penticton's Ironman.

Dr. Oz can be contacted through his website: www.KelownaVet.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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