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Snakes Are Starting to Stir This Spring

Texas A&M University's Dr. Jill Heatley, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, says spring-like temperatures in areas of Texas mean snakes are coming out of winter hibernation. Pet owners, take note. Photo of rattle snake courtesy of Texas A&M.

Snakes are beginning to emerge. It’s Spring in Texas, and as temperatures warm up, so do the snakes.

Lindheimer Chapter Texas Master Naturalists advise residents to pay attention. Snakes prefer weather that’s 80 degrees or warmer, so not all of them are slithering around…yet.

But, be especially careful in tall grass, around wildflowers or in leaf litter, they advise. Don’t stick your hand anywhere you can’t see.

Canyon Lake resident Marilyn McFarland, RN, MS, is a former trauma nurse who treated many snake-bite victims during her 40-year career. She now advises people on how to avoid snakes, identify different types of venomous snakes and understand their behavior.

“I’m fascinated by snakes, convinced they are crucial to our existence, and want to provide and present strategies so that we can live in harmony with snakes,” she says.

Although she’s not a herpetologist, McFarland’s a member of a herpetology group and takes regular field trips into snake-infested locations.

Hideouts in Comal County

She said most snakes much prefer the undeveloped areas of Comal County, far away from residents and tourists. They swim freely in Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River but are really only noticeable during floods.

If you do find a snake on your property, chances are the reptile’s just passing through or snacking on your mice and rats, McFarland says.

And yes, snakes can climb trees along the riverbanks and may trail a boat with fish hanging in the water.

But even if you’re foolish enough to mess with a venomous snake (according to research, young, white male southerners are at highest risk,) there’s a 25- to 50-percent chance the bite may not contain venom and a 100-percent chance you’ll survive if you seek immediate treatment and receive anti-venin within three hours of the bite.

Keep Dogs Leashed!

Dr. Jill Heatley, associate professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, advises keeping pets on a leash when walking trails or visiting parks.

“If a pet is bitten by a snake, they should see a veterinarian, especially if the bite-site is swelling,” she says. “If left untreated, the bite could develop into a bacterial infection because snake mouths can harbor a variety of bacteria.”

There’s rattlesnake vaccine for dogs and horses. Although vaccine isn’t available for cats, there is anecdotal evidence that it could work.

Marilyn McFarland

Marilyn McFarland, RN, MS

Fun Facts About Your Ectothermic Neighbors

  • Snakes are cold-blooded or ectothermic. Their body temperatures depend on external sources such as sunlight and warm rock surfaces. They prefer temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • To brumate for the winter, snakes find a deep crevice in rock or an animal burrow. This lowers their metabolism by as much as 90 percent. They need water but not food.
  • Once they do come out of brumation, eat and begin to mate, it will be three to five months before their babies appear, depending on the species.
  • Pit vipers — rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads — gestate for about 90 days, carrying the eggs inside their bodies until birth occurs. All pit vipers are born ready-to-go, with fangs and venom. Rattlesnakes are born with just one rattle, called a button. They add a rattle every time they shed their skins.
  • Coral snakes lay eggs in early summer that hatch in the fall. Babies are born with venom.

Dispelling Common Myths

  • Snakes can and do bite underwater.
  • All snakes can open their mouths and wide as 150 degrees, which allows them to swallow their prey whole.
  • It’s not true that baby snakes are more venomous than grown snakes. They’re just unable to control the amount of venom in their bite.
  • Young copperheads and cottonmouths have a neon yellow tail used as a lure. Young rattlesnakes have a small rattle to use as a warning. Young coral snakes only have coloration as a defense.
  • And roadrunners? They love rattlesnake for dinner. And rattlesnakes? They really don’t want to bite you.

Snake bite 101

Snakes are venomous, not poisonous. The difference between venom and poison is: If you eat something and die, it’s poisonous. If you’re bitten and you die, then it’s venemous.

Only four species of snakes are venomous: Rattlesnakes, cottonmouth water moccasins, copperheads and coral snakes.

The coral snake, also known as the infamous Texas cobra, is the only neurotoxic snake in the United States. Their venom kills by paralyzing its victims.

“Flaccid paralysis is slowly or rapidly becoming unable to move,” McFarland says. “It blocks nerve impulses to muscles, and when it affects the diaphragm you die.” She warns it can take up to 12 hours for symptoms to appear.

When recently  questioned about coral snakes in Canyon Lake gorge, she responded  it wasn’t her intent to imply that coral snakes are found only at Canyon Lake Gorge.  Coral snakes, just like any other common Texas snake, venomous or non-venomous, are found throughout Comal County, and are not specific to the Gorge.

The good news is that coral snakes are shy.

“All snakes need food, sheter and water, and can be found where any of those occur,” she says. “Stay alert when you are out in open country, watch where you walk, and chances are you’ll avoid meeting any Texas snake up close and personal!”

Bites by cottonmouths, rattlesnakes and copperheads are different. Hemotoxic venom causes pain, swelling and bruising. Lab tests reveal “deranged” coagulation ability, and there can be massive loss of tissue and muscle if not treated rapidly.

“Almost every person bit by a pit viper complains of the weirdest taste in their mouths,” she says. “It tastes like chewing on aluminum foil. They get sick to their stomach, anxious and confused.”

Tips on avoiding a snakebite:

  • Never stick your hand where you wouldn’t put your face, whether it’s into a woodpile or brush.
  • Plug holes in the house and keep pet food in mouse-proof containers.
  • Snakes access houses via plumbing fixtures and pipes.
  • Forget snake repellent. It doesn’t work, is dangerous to pets, and pollutes water.
  • Outdoors, wear snake boots or closed-toe shoes.
  • Blue jeans will stop a rattlesnake bite.
  • Be careful outside! Check before stepping over fallen logs and rock outcroppings.
  • Stay vigilant along creek banks and under banks.

Tips on surviving a snakebite

  • Ignore so-called old-wives’ tales, avoid home remedies, and don’t waste your money on over-the-counter snakebite kits. “The best snakebite kit is a set of car keys, a cell phone, and a companion to help you get to the hospital.”
  • Don’t drink whiskey or take aspirin or ibuprofen, which affect clotting.
  • Don’t take prescription painkillers, which will affect your mental status.
  • Don’t cut the bite or attempt to suck out venom.
  • Don’t apply cold or ice, which can further damage tissue.
  • Do not apply tourniquets to bitten limbs. Tourniquets can cause as much damage as venom.
  • Stay calm and use common sense.
  • Immobilize the bite site and keep it slightly lower than heart-level. Do not elevate limbs.
  • Remove jewelry from the bitten limb.
  • Loosen clothing before swelling occurs.
  • Call 9-1-1 and wait. In West Texas, ambulances will meet you half way.
  • Hunters: Sawyer extractors don’t work, although they’re good for bee stings.

“The bottom line is, you’re not going to die from it, although sometimes people have cardiac arrest caused by panic,” she says. “Maybe five people a year in the United States die from snake bites.”

“Time is tissue. The faster a victim receives antivenin, the less tissue is destroyed especially if received within three hours.”

Can’t cure stupid

You can’t cure stupid, however. She says snakebite victims (remember that young, southern male demographic?) seem fond of taking chances with venomous snakes.

One even took a selfie of himself and a rattlesnake — which, predictably bit him. Google Todd Fassler to see what a  $153,161 hospital bill looks like.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife website, the majority of snake bites result from people taking unnecessary or foolish risks.





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