We started up the trail where many dog owners bring their pets for an off-leash walk. My three were also off-leash running a little ahead of me, but staying on the dirt path. The sun was still behind the Franklin Mountains in the backdrop and the clouds were lit in a wash of orangish yellow.
Suddenly Taz, the smallest little rascal, stopped and started to bite at his hind paw as he often does when he picks up a sticker. I bent down to pluck it out, but when I moved his paw he let out a barrage of ear drum piercing cries. I was completely flabbergasted and equally perplexed. My first thought was that he had been stung by a scorpion so I picked him up for a closer look and that is when I noticed two puncture marks on his hind leg. I was living my worst nightmare. He must have been bitten by a rattlesnake!
I picked him up like a baby and started running back to the car that fortunately was only a half mile away. He was not a happy camper and continued to cry until I tucked him under my arm and ran like a football player going for a touchdown. This was no easy task because he would occasionally begin to thrash and wiggle and then start to bite the hand that was holding him. I felt so badly for him, but didn’t know what else to do.
Finally we reached the car, a hatchback with fold down seats, where I laid him down. He settled down a little bit and licked his wound while I drove him to the veterinarian. By this time it was 7:30 and I knew they would be open, but didn’t know what they could do. When I arrived they put me in a room with Taz to wait for the doctor as he didn’t arrive at work until 8:00. This was the longest 15 minutes of my life and I just held Taz tightly while he trembled in my arms. At one point he let out another one of his extremely loud cries.
The doc arrived and said that he definitely was bitten, but didn’t know how much venom was injected. 20% of rattlesnake bites are dry and dogs can tolerate venom better than humans. They rarely die unless they are bitten in the head or multiple times so, for that reason, he opted to not administer antivenin. The first thing he did was give him a shot of a sedative to make him more comfortable and then took him back and hooked him up to an I.V. to manage his swelling. He assured me that he had a strong chance of recovering, but would need to stay in the hospital at least overnight.
Late that afternoon, Cara, Maddie, and I went to visit Taz before the vet closed up for the evening. Maddie was so sweet to him repeating over and over, “it’s OK Taz, you’ll be alright.” His hind leg was extremely swollen and he looked so pitiful with the I.V. in his paw. We bid him goodnight and went home for a worrisome sleepless night.
Fortunately, he was able to come home the next day, but he looked terrible with much bruising on his stomach, groin and inner thighs. Because the venom breaks down tissue and destroys red blood cells, his wounds were draining blood and fluid in mass amounts. Not only did he have the bite wounds, but other places eventually opened up on the inside of his leg and around his groin because his blood along with venom was traveling back up towards his heart.
We placed Taz in a towel lined kennel in the living room where he mostly rested comfortably. At one point in the afternoon, he seemed to hit rock bottom though and looked absolutely miserable. We gave him some of the pain meds that the vet sent home with us and after a few hours he pulled out of his slump.
The following day, the third day after the bite, his demeanor and energy level were quite good, but the drainage was alarming and his groin was very bruised and swollen. We had to change his “bed linens” several times a day. By the fourth day we were concerned about the swelling so we called the vet who said to bring him in for a look.
The swelling was typical and not a problem but Taz’s red blood cell count was low due to the venom attacking his cells. We would just have to keep an eye on it. A few days later, dead skin started to slough off of his sores and the repulsive smell of necrosis (dead tissue) was filling our house. It wasn’t that overwhelming dead animal smell, but a weird funky stink like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Leaving the wounds alone and uncovered was necessary until all the tissue was dead and only then could the vet work on cleaning up and suturing up the injuries. By this time we noticed a deep hole under some of the dead skin where he was bitten which shocked us.
After a long week of caring for him, we took Taz back to the vet so they could remove dead tissue and bandage the hole in his leg where the fangs went in. He really hated that bandage and over the weekend chewed it off. I almost had a melt down when I saw the hole but Cara suggested that it may be just as well for it to stay open and for him to clean it himself. At least the smell was gone.
Around the twelfth day, Taz went in for surgery to close up the deep wounds. The plan was to slide skin from above and below the hole in his leg to try to cover most of the injury, but it was too large. The vet had to resort to plan B which was to graft skin taken from his side. He also had to suture the large gash that opened on the inside of his leg. So now poor Taz looks like Frankenweenie, with pink stitches in his side, but at least he is getting well. Besides, in his mind he is still the king; especially after all the extra attention he has been getting around here.
At this point we are waiting to see if the skin graft takes. All in all, it could have been worse. Luckily Taz is still with us and should have a full recovery. As bad as I feel for Taz, it could have been me that was bitten which has since raised my awareness on the trail.
Do I feel guilty for letting my dogs run free in rattlesnake country? Yes, to some extent, but our family has always held the view that dogs need to be allowed to be dogs. We feel that that is better than chaining them to a tree in the backyard or never letting them out of the house or yard as some people do. In addition, we spend a lot of time on the family ranch where we ride horses with as many as eight dogs tagging along and it just isn’t feasible to keep them leashed. However, I have decided that I can minimize the risk of another incident by limiting my off-leash dog running to mostly cool months when snakes are less active.