June’s Journal-Snakes!

june and snake

June’s Journal in August!

Let’s talk about snakes!  What do you know about them?  I had to do some homework on this subject since there are no snakes in the office!  The vets were all talking about snakes after one of the horses got a snake bite right on the tip of his nose!  Seems unfair, but from what I hear, horses like to put their noses into everyone’s business!

In Virginia there are ~ 35 types of snakes but only 3 are venomous (Copperheads, Timber Rattlesnakes and Cottonmouths.)  Only 2 of the venomous types show up in Northern Virginia.

Nothern Copperhead www.wildlifeofct.com

Nothern Copperhead

Northern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix mokeson) are our main culprit for snake bites as they are pretty common.  Copperheads can be up to 48 inches in length and they like to hang out anywhere that there are rodents (barns, wood piles, sawdust piles.) They typically have a copper colored head with hourglass patterns of brown on a lighter brown or grey background.  They also have dark spots on the sides of their belly (but who really wants to get close enough to see a snake’s belly?!?)  Younger copperheads often have a sulfur yellow tail tip.


Timber Rattlesnake www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com

Timber Rattlesnake

Rarely, the Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus horridus)make it into our area.  They can be up to 60 inches in length!  Timber rattlesnakes have 2 color phases.   In the black phase, the head and front 1/3 of the body is black and they have black saddles and incomplete chevrons that are hard to see on the dark background of the body.  The yellow phase is much more distinct with the saddles and chevrons being easily seen.    A third venomous snake, the canebrake rattlesnake is a variation of the timber rattlesnake and is typically limited to Southern Virginia.

A good source of information and images is: http://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com

The quick ways of identifying venomous snakes in Northern Virginia are: (1) The venomous snakes in NOVA are pit vipers, meaning that they have a heat-sensing pit between their eye and their nostril.  (2) Our venomous snakes have a single row of scales along the underside of their tail.  Nonvenomous snakes have a double row of scales on the underside of their tail.  (3) Our venomous snakes have an elliptical pupil, while their nonvenomous counterparts have round pupils.  (4) Venomous snakes tend to have a more triangular head than nonvenomous snakes.

snake id


It is important to remember that these differences are a general rule only.    I know that I don’t want to get close enough to a snake to see whether they are venomous or not!

The best rule: DON’T HANDLE SNAKES!  This doesn’t mean that snakes are not a good part of our ecosystem.    Having snakes around the barn will keep your rodent population down.  If you don’t want snakes around, the best plan of action is to make your barn/yard/home uninviting.  Keep things clean and tidy so there aren’t good hiding places.  You should also make sure grain and treats are protected from rodents.

According to the Center for Human-Wildlife Conflict Resolution snakes are classified as a non-game protected species.   You can look at their site http://www.humanwildlife.org/ for the legalities of snake removal/management.  As with all wildlife, non-lethal control measures should be exhausted before any lethal measures are used.  You can also look at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website for information about snakes and other wildlife: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/nuisance/snakes/.

So what actually happens with a venomous snake bite?  Well, the venom of the Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake is typically hemotoxic and destroys blood and lymph cells.  Horses typically get bitten on the nose as they tend to use them to investigate.

photo by Dr. Jessica Williamson

photo by Dr. Jessica Williamson

Occasionally they get bitten on the lower limb or body.  Adult copperhead bites can be serious but they tend to inject less venom than the younger ones (typical that adults are more in control of their venom than the juveniles!).  Rattlesnake bites tend to be much more serious than those of the copperhead.

photo by Dr. Jennifer French

photo by Dr. Jennifer French

Any venomous snake bite can be life threatening to your horse!  If your horse is bitten by a venomous snake it is considered an emergency situation.  Why?  Well, if a horse gets bitten on the nose, the subsequent swelling can block their airway leading to death or the venom can cause systemic shock or anaphylactic shock which can lead to sudden death. Care may include anti- inflammatories, antibiotics for secondary infection, IV fluids and possibly a tracheostomy to maintain an airway. Sometimes the swelling and infection is so bad that surgical intervention is needed to treat/remove the affected tissue.  Some horses must be euthanized due to secondary complications even when they survive the initial envenomation.   

What should you do if you suspect that your horse has been bitten by a snake?  (1) Call us immediately, (2) Confine your horse and keep him quiet, (3) identify the snake if you can do so without endangering yourself.

Prognosis for a snakebite if you’re a horse?  Guarded to good.  Only about 1/2 of the horses bitten receive enough venom to put them at risk of life threatening reactions but there is no way to know at the time of the bite how much venom was injected.

Snakes are much maligned and we need to remember that they play an important role in our ecosystem and they deserve respect.  Snakes are actually pretty cool critters!  Unfortunately sometimes our interactions have severe consequences.

Equine Emergency

What to do in an Equine Emergency

What to do when you call:

Chances are good at some point you will see us on emergency basis, horses being accident prone creatures! If you do have to call, here are some things we will probably ask you on the phone, so you can be prepared with answers when you call:

  1. Your name. Sounds silly, but in the heat of an emergency often panicked horse owners will forget to tell us who they are.
  2. Your horse’s name and where the physical address of the barn. We start looking your information up in our computer system, but sometimes horses move and this information is not updated. Might be good to have the physical address posted at the barn, as well as some rough directions as well. Again, sounds common sense, but you would be surprised at how often we get callers who don’t know where there horse lives.
  3. What the problem is, and how long it has been happening. If you are in doubt, please call sooner rather than later!
  4. Your horse’s temperature, manure production, and if they have eaten normally. It’s a great idea to have a thermometer at the barn because this is usually one of the first questions we will ask.

Finally, if you do call us, we strive to call you back as soon as possible. PLEASE do not make other phone calls while you are waiting for the vet to call you back! We get just as anxious to talk to you and get on the road to see your horse, and often we get frustrated with busy signals or voice mail on the number we need to reach you on. We understand you need to call others when there is an emergency, but if it’s possible use a different line or wait until we have called you back.

We are available 24-7 for equine emergencies. The answering service number is 866-503- 7411. There is no charge to call, so if you are in doubt about whether your horse needs to be seen, please call!

Equine Emergency Care

For emergency care, please call 866-503-7411.

We offer emergency care for horses 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Once you have spoken to the answering service at the above number, PLEASE stay off the phone so that the vet may call you back promptly! If you need to call for back up help with your horse before the vet arrives, please use another phone line.

Normal vital signs in a horse:

Temperature: 98-100.5 degrees F

Heart Rate: 24-44 beats/minute

Respiratory Rate: 8-20 breaths/minute

Mucous Membranes: moist and pink

Capillary Refill time of gums: under 2 seconds

Gut sounds: gurgling, rumbling, and tinkling sounds present both sides of abdomen