Kitties and copperheads

When we moved to our mountaintop enclave in Black Mountain five years ago, we decided to get a cat. After some research, we concluded that a Bengal—a cross between an Asian leopard cat and a tabby—would be a good choice for a mountain cat because of their strength, tenacity, camouflage coat and genetic proclivity for surviving in the wild.

It can be dangerous out there: When our Bengal was attacked by a feral cat and nearly lost his tail, we trapped seven feral felines and transported them to the Asheville Humane Society. My husband has also killed 10 copperheads in our yard over the years—waving them menacingly at the Bengal to teach him to keep his distance.

About a year ago, however, we were adopted by a sweet stray kitten with a singing meow who emerged from the woods in the back yard. Since Birdie hadn’t had the benefit of snake training and all the feral cats had already been dispatched, when my husband saw him suddenly leap into the air the other morning and then appear at the back door with a badly wounded eye, I concluded that my worst nightmare had finally come true: Our beloved Birdie had been bitten by a copperhead.

He was drooling, panting and yowling, and I stuck him in the carrier and raced to the vet. The assistant there assumed that Birdie had been scratched by another cat or hit by a car. But as his little head doubled in size, I became convinced that it must have been a snakebite. To my astonishment, however, the vet informed me that “Veterinary clinics in this area do not carry antivenom.” Instead, they gave the cat three shots—rabies, antibiotics and steroids—and gave me two phone numbers of clinics that might be able to treat a snakebite.

The receptionist at the first number said, “We don’t carry antivenom, and I don’t think anyone else does.” At the second number, Dr. Thompson explained that while the Animal Hospital of North Asheville did have antivenom, it is prohibitive both in terms of cost ($500 a dose) and potential side effects (it can cause anaphylactic shock), and thus is not approved for small animals such as cats. Nonetheless, he emphasized that quick treatment would improve Birdie’s chances, so we booked on over there.

Upon arrival, I was met by Dr. Riggles, who’d previously practiced in the Florida Panhandle and had extensive experience with snakebite victims (mostly dogs, since he said people tended to just let their cats die). He recommended an alternative treatment plan that he said would be just as effective as antivenom, if not better. They inserted an intravenous drip to hydrate and purge the cat’s system and give it antibiotics. Steroids and pain reliever were also administered to make Birdie comfortable while they monitored his vital signs.

Driving home in tears, I could still see Birdie’s wistful look as I’d left the clinic, wondering whether I would ever see him alive again. Minutes passed like hours till Dr. Riggles called to assure me that Birdie was doing remarkably well. By 6 p.m. he was home—somewhat sleepy, punctured and bruised but, against all odds, alive and miraculously well.

According to the N.C. Cooperative Extension Web site, more venomous snakebites are recorded in North Carolina each year than in any other state. In most years, copperheads account for more of those bites than any other U.S. species, but they also have the mildest venom.

Copperheads often make an initial warning strike, injecting little venom. The poison breaks down red blood cells, destroys local tissue, and causes swelling and pain. Secondary infection often sets in. And though there is an effective antivenom, it’s administered only as a last resort because of the threat of an allergic reaction that can be more dangerous than the bite itself.

“Copperhead bites are typically not fatal to human victims,” says zoologist Peter Bromley of the Cooperative Extension. With small animals, however, a bite may be fatal. The venom causes local tissue destruction, and secondary infection is common. Anytime you suspect a venomous snakebite, seek medical treatment immediately.

We weren’t able to find the snake that bit Birdie, but it can be helpful to try to identify the offending animal. Knowing that it was indeed a snake—and which kind—can make a big difference in getting the right treatment at the right time. This should be done with extreme caution, however, as many people get bitten while trying to catch or kill a snake.

For most folks, avoidance may be the best defense: Leave snakes alone and they’ll probably return the favor. Keeping housecats indoors and dogs on a leash reduces the chances of your pet getting bitten.

Happily, Birdie survived, thanks to a fast car and the good doctors at the Animal Hospital of North Asheville. And in the process, we conquered not only the hidden dangers that lurk within these mountains, but fear itself.

[Writer and graphic designer Julia Brooke-Childs is co-owner of New Age Gardens in Swannanoa.]

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2 thoughts on “Kitties and copperheads

  1. Carrie

    Our dog was bitten by a copperhead last year. We brought him to REACH Animal Hospital and he was treated with anti-venom. It was a holiday weekend so , of course, it was extremely expensive but it was an available option there and he is doing great. We had a big copperhead population last year but haven’t since. We’re hoping it stays that way!

  2. Lori Widmer Bean

    Great article, Julia! It’s a potent reminder that pets are sometimes more vulnerable to natural threats than we are.

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