Russell Lewis with his dog Leo

Russell Lewis of Austin is shown with his dog, Leo, a Hungarian Vizsla. Leo recently survived a rattlesnake bite. 

Sunny spring and summer days make perfect opportunities to leash up your dog and go for a walk. They sometimes also make perfect opportunities to encounter venomous snakes.

Russell Lewis and his dog Leo learned that the hard way. Lewis was walking with his 10-month-old Hungarian Vizsla down a nature trail in Northwest Austin, Texas, and spotted a large rattlesnake sun bathing in the walkway. Leo began to pull toward the snake, and what happened next is a dog owner’s worst nightmare: Leo got bit.

“Leo snapped his leash and took off running,” Lewis said. “I ran after him, scooped him up and he just went limp in my arms.”

To make matters worse, Lewis was involved in a car accident the week before and was without a vehicle. He had no choice but to make his way toward his veterinarian’s office on foot. Luckily, a good Samaritan named Harris Johnson stopped and drove Lewis and his dog to the vet’s office.

Johnson not only offered transportation, but also life-saving advice.

“He [Johnson] was very composed. I was the one panicking,” Lewis said. “He told me to keep petting my dog so he would stay relaxed. He was very instrumental in saving Leo’s life.”

Johnson attributes his knowledge to his grandmother, who trained dogs for a living.

“She didn’t give lectures or anything, she just showed you what to do,” Johnson said. “And one of the things you do when an animal is bitten by a snake is try to keep them calm.”

Lewis and Leo made it to the emergency room before the snake venom was able to do irreversible damage and Leo survived the bite.

Virginia is home to a number of snakes, most of which are nonvenomous. However, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society, the state has three native venomous snakes, and two of them — the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake — can be found in Southwest Virginia. The eastern cottonmouth’s territory is limited to southeast Virginia.

Snake venom breaks down the viscosity of tissue, affects coagulation, may cause necrosis of the tissue and can interfere with an animal’s pressure regulations and cardiac system, said Texas veterinarian Scott Johnson.

“The venom’s purpose is to predigest the tissue for the snake,” he said.

The most common signs that an animal has been attacked by a venomous snake are small, bloody puncture wounds and severe pain.

Seek medical attention right away.

“The worst thing you can do if your dog gets bit is wait,” said Ashlie Abbott, veterinarian and medical director at VCA Tanglewood Animal Hospital in Texas.

Most vet clinics offer treatment such as pain medication, antihistamines, IV fluids and antibiotics. If the damage is severe and the animal needs blood or plasma, patients are referred to the emergency room or specialty vet clinic, Abbott said.

If you are not close to medical care, Abbott said to call your veterinary office, explain the situation and follow their advice, as well as give your animal a dose of Benadryl.

“Benadryl is always your friend because it is an antihistamine that will reduce swelling and delay the reaction,” she said.

Vaccines, which build antibodies against the venom, can reduce the harmful effects of snake bite, but veterinary care should still be sought, Scott Johnson said. Check with your vet’s office about the availability of vaccine and whether it’s recommended for your dog.

Snake aversion training is another way to try to protect dogs from snake bites. During training sessions at the Canine Center for Training and Behavior in Oak Hill, Texas, life-like rubber snakes are used along with the shed skins of rattlesnakes and copperhead snakes. Once the dogs notice the fake snakes, they are taught to be fearful of — and avoid — the snakes without using any pain or compulsion. Sessions last about 20 minutes, and Canine Center owner and trainer Jane Del Re said it is a good idea to have sessions in a few different settings.

“Dogs need several applications before they go, ‘Aha! I see a snake and I should avoid it,’” she said.

Scott Johnson also suggests keeping dogs on a leash if you’re in an area that might be home to snakes and paying attention to the environment.

“Snakes can be out in places you wouldn’t expect them to be,” he said, “and rattlesnakes don’t necessarily always rattle.”

Abbott suggests keeping dogs away from tall grass and shrubbery.

“Snakes usually are in the underbrush,” she said. “When your dog gets in there, there is a good chance it will get bit. You generally also want to keep your dog away from new housing development areas that have been recently cleared out.”

That is exactly what Lewis and Leo are doing from now on.

“I am not going on any more trails. I’m just not,” he said. “I don’t want to go through this scare again. It was emotionally and financially too hard. We are just going to have to regroup and find other avenues of exercise.”

The Roanoke Times contributed to this report.

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