Skunks, Snakes, and Porcupines - Oh, my!

Skunks, Snakes, and Porcupines - Oh, my! - Vetster

Summer is an excellent time to head out and enjoy fresh air and open spaces with your canine companion. But it only takes a second for your outing to turn into a grand misadventure if you have an encounter with a skunk, snake, or porcupine that goes poorly. What steps can you take to decrease the likelihood of something like this, and what should you do when it happens?

General Guidelines

Leashes On

No matter what hazards you face when you go out with your dogs, you will reduce the chances of any type of accident if you keep them leashed. This applies whether you’re simply touring your neighborhood or out enjoying a more adventurous hike. Simply put, it's harder for a dog to find his way into trouble when he cannot stray more than six or eight feet from your side. With this in mind, the disadvantages of using a retractable leash are quite obvious. It is not at all unusual for veterinarians who work in emergency centers to see dogs who have been injured - even hit by cars - while out on a retractable leash. A short leash goes a long way towards preventing all types of common injuries and accidents, especially wildlife encounters.

Environment and Time of Day

As human population centers have expanded, we’ve encroached on wildlife habitat. As a result, city dwellers find themselves encountering wildlife while out walking their dogs more and more frequently. Generally speaking, encounters with wildlife are rare during the middle of the day. Wild critters tend to be more active at dawn and at dusk. Similarly, some predators that might consider your dog a tasty meal are more likely to be out when the light is low or absent. Unfortunately, most of us tend to work opposite hours compared to wildlife and have to squeeze our outings with our dogs into those dawn and dusk hours. Be extra vigilant if you're out during twilight, especially on garbage pick-up days when wildlife is even more likely to be out.

Skunks

Skunks are common throughout North America. They prefer rural areas, but are often seen in suburbs. Skunks are most active during the late spring and early summer when they emerge after spending most of the winter in their dens. Skunks are nocturnal, searching for food during night hours, but if you head out with your dog early in the morning or late in the evening, an encounter is not out of the question. Poor eyesight paired with slow response time make these late night scavengers pretty irresistible to a curious canine.

Even though a skunk does not have teeth or claws to defend himself, his readiness for chemical warfare is more than sufficient to deter curious or aggressive creatures who get too close. You are probably familiar with the scent of skunk spray from driving past an unlucky deceased skunk on the side of the road. This smell provides only a hint of what a skunk is capable of doing. When deployed at close range, the noxious chemicals in skunk spray have a much stronger smell and cause eye irritation, profuse drooling, and vomiting, much like what happens with mace or teargas.

In a worst-case scenario, being sprayed by a skunk has the potential to be lethal. A perfect storm where a small dog, especially one with pre-existing health issues, receives a large dose of well-aimed spray can end up causing life-threatening problems. If the severe distress your dog is showing doesn’t fade away within a few minutes after being sprayed, seek emergency care. While rare, a life-threatening form of anemia can develop following a heavy exposure to skunk spray. If your dog develops symptoms like appetite loss and lethargy in the days or weeks after being sprayed by a skunk, be sure to get him to a vet.

Fortunately in most cases, the initial irritation is expected to pass after a few minutes and you’ll be left only with the smell. You still won’t find it pleasant to be anywhere near your dog (or put him in your car) until after he can be bathed, and even then it will take weeks for the scent to fully fade away.

There are a variety of commercially-available products for removing skunk scent from pets. At best these provide partial relief, but not all are effective. A favorite recipe for a home-made skunk bath that’s been shared by generations of veterinarians is to mix ¼ cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid hand soap into 4 cups of regular 3% hydrogen peroxide. Apply the solution thoroughly to the affected area and leave in place for several minutes before rinsing well. Note that this mixture is caustic and can cause eye damage, so be sure to avoid getting it in or around your dog’s eyes. You can help protect the eyes by using an artificial tears lubricant prior to bathing, but if accidental exposure occurs, flush liberally with contact lens solution, saline, or tap water. Repeating this treatment three or four times over the next few days will help reduce the smell, but it won't go away entirely. It takes time for it to wear off. If your dog has black fur, don’t be surprised if she develops lovely auburn highlights as a result of the peroxide.

The best way to avoid an encounter with a skunk is to keep your dog on a leash, especially if you live and walk where skunks are commonly seen. Some dogs appear to learn their lesson about skunks quickly after only one encounter, but others seem a little slower to catch on. That means you cannot count on one bad experience with that funny-looking cat with the chemical weapons to discourage your dog from future skunk encounters.

Snakes

The risk of encountering a poisonous snake with your dog depends largely on where you live. Most of the poisonous snakes found in North America fall into the pit viper family. This includes a variety of rattlesnakes as well as the cottonmouth, also known as a water moccasin. You’re in luck if you live in The Yukon, Nunavut, or on the island of Newfoundland since they don’t have any wild snakes at all, venomous or otherwise. It’s possible to find some varieties of rattlesnakes in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, but there are no reports of poisonous snakes in the other Canadian provinces. While they’re more common in some regions than others, venomous snakes can be found in every state in the Lower 48. Cottonmouths (water moccasins) are found in the southeastern US, and a variety of rattlesnakes can be found in every state exclusive of Alaska and Hawaii. Most canine encounters with rattlers occur in the southwestern US where these snakes are abundant, but rattlesnakes are endangered, rare, or potentially eliminated in some small eastern states like Delaware and New Jersey. Regardless, as the climate changes we can expect snake habitat to change as well.

When and where your dog exercises in these different geographic regions has an impact on the likelihood of a snake bite. Cottonmouths are water snakes, so dogs who swim or play in ponds, lakes, streams, swamps, and wetlands have the highest risk for an unpleasant encounter with these venomous reptiles. Dogs exploring in the Southwest, especially off leash, are at the highest risk for encountering a rattlesnake. All snakes are less active during winter months or when it’s cold outside, so the risks for a bite increase during the warmer parts of the year. When it’s really hot outside, however, snakes tend to be more active during the cooler mornings and evenings than in the heat of the day.

Venomous snakes are not out looking for dogs (or humans) to bite. It’s a last resort for them and they don’t want to waste any of their precious venom unless it’s necessary. There is a common misconception that baby snakes are less dangerous than adult snakes because they are smaller. In fact, adult snakes are better at conserving venom than younger ones. As a result, a younger snake is more likely to deliver more venom during a bite. “Dry bites”, where no venom is delivered, are also possible. Dogs are most frequently bitten either when they ignore a snake’s warning signs and fail to leave a snake alone, or when they startle or step on a snake they didn’t see. Most bites are delivered to the face, feet or legs.

When a dog is envenomated as a result of a bite from a pit viper like a rattlesnake or cottonmouth, it is profoundly painful. This won’t be something subtle that doesn’t show up until later. Depending on how much venom was delivered, the location of the bite, the size of the dog and the dog’s health status, the severity of the resulting symptoms may range from mild pain and swelling all the way up to severe or life-threatening. Snake venom causes a lot of tissue destruction, so even when a dog survives a bite, the resulting wounds can fester and take months to heal. It may be necessary to amputate a limb, and sometimes multiple surgeries are required.

Pit viper envenomation is a medical emergency. Get your dog to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. It’s hard to predict the outcome of a snake bite because there’s no way to know how much venom was delivered, but treatment decisions are usually based on the severity of signs the dog is showing. Treatment for shock, pain, and wound management are usually part of the plan for a dog with a snake bite, but the foundation of emergency management for a snake bite is administration of antivenin (also called antivenom). Antivenin is administered IV (intravenously) as quickly as possible after the snake bite occurs to counteract the effects of the venom. It is highly effective at reducing the pain and tissue damage the venom causes. Antivenin is a truly life-saving therapy. Not all veterinary clinics have access to it, however. It is expensive - often around $500 per vial - and has a relatively short shelf-life.

The best strategy for avoiding a snake bite is to keep your dog on a leash. Be vigilant when out in snake country and avoid locations where snakes are commonly seen. If snakes are common in your area, consider the rattlesnake vaccine (crotalus atrox toxoid). Talk to a veterinarian on Vetster to see if this might be right for you. Most importantly, if you live where a snake bite is a possibility, have a plan. Can you carry your dog back to the car from where you were hiking? Do you need to consider purchasing a canine evacuation sling or harness like the FidoPro. What if you’re out with two dogs and they both receive a bite? What’s your evacuation strategy then? How long does it take to get to the closest veterinarian who has antivenin in stock? Will you be able to cover the costs of antivenin treatment?

A snake bite is a nightmare for anyone going through it, both for the dog and the human caregiver. Keep your dog on a leash when walking in snake habitat to minimize the likelihood for a snake encounter. If you can, avoid snake territory whenever possible, but be prepared in case the worst happens.

Porcupines

Like skunks, porcupines can be found throughout North America. They’re less common than skunks and tend to prefer forested land, but they can be found in grasslands, shrubby deserts, and even high above the treeline. Porcupines are most active at night, but are occasionally encountered during the day. While porcupines do not hibernate, they tend to avoid bad weather, so encounters are much less common during the winter. Porcupines also do not migrate. In fact, they don’t usually stray all that far from their dens. This is great if you don’t happen to share a habitat with a porcupine family, but it also means that if you see one once, you’re likely to come across him again in the same general area.

Like skunks, these large rodents don’t fight aggressively with teeth and claws. They also aren’t generally inclined to run away because… well, they don’t have to. They rely on their prickly, barbed quills to discourage curious canines and other would-be attackers. If your dog is a quick study, he may come away from his first porcupine encounter with only a half dozen quills near his nose or in a paw. Slow learners, unfortunately, can end up in a world of hurt with hundreds or even more than a thousand quills embedded painfully in their skin.

These quills can do a lot of damage. They’re very painful to start with, and if they get embedded in the lips, tongue, or eyes, they can cause serious injury to those delicate tissues. Additionally, dogs tend to respond by rubbing at the quills and this only pushes them in deeper or breaks them off. When quills enter into or near the eye, loss of vision or even the eyeball itself can result. A dog with a multitude of quills in his mouth will not be able to eat or drink, so a severe porcupine quill (PPQ) incident has the potential to be life-threatening.

Porcupine quills are covered with barbs that not only keep them from falling out, but also force them relentlessly forward. As a result, quills will continue to migrate in a forward direction, passing through and potentially damaging whatever organs or soft tissues they encounter along the way. Quill wounds don’t frequently get infected, but it’s possible. If an embedded quill is migrating along underneath the skin, you may see an open, wet wound that fails to dry out and heal. In some cases, internal organs can be damaged and this can have potentially life-threatening results.

Regardless of if your dog received 2 or 200 quills, you’ll both want them out as quickly as possible. An emergency vet visit is the best way to cope with a problem like this, and your dog will thank you for not attempting to remove the quills yourself. A firm grip and a pair of hemostats or pliers facilitates the process, but this is a TOUGH job that is extremely painful. Once the quill has been firmly grasped, a powerful tug or yank is necessary to get the quill out and this will hurt. Quills that are embedded more deeply are even harder to remove. Attempting to remove a quill is extremely painful for the dog. If you’re not good at it, chances are good you won’t be successful each time you yank, and that leads to causing your dog even more pain. You can’t expect him to reasonably submit to this type of treatment, and he wouldn’t be out of line for biting. Having your dog sedated or anesthetized for quill removal is the most humane approach. Removing quills yourself should be attempted only as a last resort and only if there are very few quills.

On your way to the vet, do all you can to minimize movement. Try to get your dog to avoid pawing at quills, pushing them in further, or breaking them off. Quills that have been broken off are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove, so don't trim them off, even though they look uncomfortable. Because of the way the barbs cause the quills to migrate forward, a broken off quill that has a little bit exposed will soon disappear deeper into the skin and underlying tissues.

Treatment is straightforward for simple, uncomplicated cases with only a few quills and no serious injuries to the eyes or mouth. More complicated cases may require advanced imaging to find broken, migrating quills and surgery to remove them. Many people who've gone through this report finding more quills for weeks or months as they migrate through the skin and find their way back out.

Keeping your dog on a leash is the best way to prevent a PPQ incident. Some dogs learn their lesson and leave porcupines alone after being quilled the first time, but don’t count on it. One strategy for teaching a dog to avoid being quilled after an initial incident is to have the vet save the quills, then show the dog the quills at least once every day thereafter. Let the dog smell them, and repeat a command in a low, serious voice like, “NO PORCUPINES.” After doing this for some period of time you can expect the dog to refuse to come near the quills and hope that he’ll make the connection to avoiding porcupines themselves.

Become familiar with the potentially hazardous wildlife in your area so you can minimize your chances of encountering them while out with your dog. Know what to expect if an encounter does occur, and have a plan for how to get to help you may need so you can get through the summer as safely as possible. In the meantime, get out there and enjoy this beautiful summer season!

The Vetster Editorial Team is comprised of seasoned writers and communicators dedicated to elevating stories about Vetster, pets and their owners.

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