this is july


Snakes and Adders

Usually, I love it when springs rolls over into summer...but not this year! It's the surge of vernal energy as leaves unfold in gold-green contrast to the dark, glossy tangle of ivy, the vanilla- scented gorse, the grass growing... it's the time when nature's creatures are in the mood for love... and that includes adders! One of which gave Woody, my spaniel, a nasty kiss of venom. His close encounter of the toxic kind was horrible, so I'm writing this episode of living in Cornwall with the dual purpose of being cathartic, for me, and passing on information.

It happened like this: it was a warmish, late afternoon; Woody, as usual, was foraging around in the undergrowth. I watched him; ears alert, body taut, thinking, " What's that?", he stuck his nose in the grass again and his head shot back as if he'd been Tasered. He rubbed his muzzle along the ground and I thought he'd been stung. I touched his jowl and it was bleeding profusely, I put his lead on, wanting to get back to the car quickly to check him over properly. Within a hundred yards, he could barely stand, his head dropped and he was whimpering in distress. I believed my beloved dog was going to die before my eyes!

We had a dog bitten on the head by an adder many years ago and I guessed from Woody's reaction, that this was the cause. The speed of the venom taking effect was shocking. I called the vet, collected John and we drove into Helston with pulses racing, for a slow motion journey where time stood still. Never had tractors and milk tankers trundled along so unperturbed!

The vet was waiting and we lifted Woody onto the consulting table as the little dear was in a state of collapse. He was given an injection of steroid and antibiotic and put on a drip to stabilise the shock. He was kept in overnight to be monitored and given whatever treatment was necessary. We had to leave him and wait until morning, We left, bereft, with fifteen hours of a long night's journey into day ahead - I think we counted every one of the 900 minutes- and a cold, dog -shaped void filling the empty place by my side on the sofa. Dog owners know that it's more than likely that their pets will die before them, but not like this. It was traumatic, dramatic and unfair.

We came home on the understanding that 'no news is good news' and the vet would only ring if it became critical. As a rule, I might have the odd call in the evening - this night we had five! Our hearts sank every time we picked-up the receiver. The calls were all random everyday stuff from the window cleaner telling me he wouldn't come if it rained, to my sister wanting a recipe for butternut squash soupl! We visited Woody early next morning and he managed a little wag. Once stabilised, he was given a shot of anti-venom serum and I had a call late afternoon to ask if I would collect him as he'd pulled out his drip and was ready for home.


I have described the reaction and symptoms of an adder bite as my dog experienced it; for the details, here's the professional advice from Woody's favourite vet.

1. DON'T PANIC. Find a vet as soon as possible. Don't let the dog exercise...carry if possible.

2. The venom is a toxic agent and will cause a state of clinical shock. Some dogs are much more badly affected than others. Almost all will show a dramatic localised painful swelling and become lethargic while others like Woody will have an extreme reaction.

3. Almost always there will be dramatic localised swelling, usually to the face or front leg. It's difficult to diagnose an adder bite without significant painful swelling.

4. If a dog has had an extreme and rapid reaction to the bite it may be necessary to stabilise the animal by putting on a drip/ steroid injection etc. In these circumstances the dog is already vulnerable and some dogs can react very badly to the anti-serum, so it is safer to treat for clinical shock initially. However some dogs recover well with steroid treatment only.

5. With proper treatment, deaths are very rare, although some animals are very ill before making a good recovery. A vet will see between 5-10 cases per year. Sunny weekends in April and May are times for owners to be particularly on guard; their venom is stronger and adders are just coming out of hibernation and may, therefore, be less aware of their surroundings.

Since Woody was bitten,
I've heard so many anecdotal adder experiences and suggested remedies and advice from the apocryphal belief of giving antihistamine, to the plain daft folk-lore precaution of weaving a withy necklace for an animal to wear. I understand the reasoning behind this; willow bark, if chewed or boiled has an anti-inflammatory effect and contains salicin which is similar to acetylsalicylic acid i.e. aspirin, but I think I'll stick with a shot of anti-venom serum!

'One bitten, twice shy', has real meaning - not for Woody, he's OK; I'm the problem...I imagine that behind every clump of grass, there's an adder; coiled, waiting, venom dripping from toxic fangs, jet- black eyes zeroed in, poised and ready to strike. I'm being pathetic and have to get over it because without a mongoose outrider with a whistle and red flag, I feel vulnerable and like an over protective mother. Summer's here and adders, allegedly, are less 'teazy' and I want is to relax and enjoy my walks again.


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