UT-VMC emergency room tails: The snake in a jar

UTVMC COLUMN HEADER  2By Dr. Amanda Rainey

The evening had been steady with emergency cases. Overall, it was going well. I had found time to talk with students about a few key points involving some of the patients. We had also shared a few laughs, which always makes the time more enjoyable.

“We have a dog coming in about 30 minutes that was bit by a snake, a copperhead the owner said,” my technician announced when she entered our triage room. We see a fair amount of snake envenomation victims in the summer and early fall, but the students on this particular evening had never experienced one. I discussed how serious the situation could be and how to assess and treat animals that have been bitten by poisonous snakes.

We start by performing an ECG to determine the rate and rhythm of their pulse. Then we check blood pressure. While obtaining these values, we perform a complete physical examination and pay close attention to the area where the bite occurred. All animals usually have swelling at the site of the bite, but in more serious cases they can develop necrosis from the venom, as well as systemic abnormalities such as seizures, low blood pressure and clotting problems. In severely affected cases, we administer antivenin in an effort to counteract the clinical signs the animal is manifesting. We also check complete blood work and administer pain medication, as the condition is quite uncomfortable. Once the patient is stable, we place them into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to treat edema and discomfort at the bite location.

Feeling prepared after our conversation, the students eagerly trotted up front to bring back our patient when the call came overhead alerting us to the dog’s arrival. I had instructed them to rush the dog back to ICU, as some of them can be quite unstable on admission. As a few minutes went by, I started wondering what was going on when one of our receptionists came to ICU with a big smile on her face.

“Is the snake-bite dog still up front,” I asked her. She nodded and then proceeded to show me what was in her hands. She was holding a small mason jar that contained a tiny snake, slightly bigger than a large earthworm. I could feel my eyes getting big and I cocked my head to the side as I asked the obvious question.

“Is that the snake?” The receptionist confirmed that the owners had captured and placed it in the jar. I knew from my quick glance that it wasn’t a copperhead, but a benign garter snake like the ones I’d seen so often in the grass growing up. As it turned out, the snake hadn’t even bitten the dog; the owners had just seen the snake near the dog on the outdoor patio and panicked. We all had a good chuckle and ended up not charging the clients anything. In fact, I felt like we owed them a little something for the amusement we enjoyed.

(Dr. Amanda Rainey, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor in the small animal clinical sciences department at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center in Knoxville.)

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