“Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black won’t hurt Jack” might be a familiar folk rhyme to many residents who grew up in Florida or elsewhere in the Deep South, as a helpful way to distinguish the deadly Eastern coral snake from the harmless scarlet king snake it strongly resembles. But Larry Ferguson, who recently moved to Gainesville, Fla., from Arkansas, had never even heard of a coral snake, much less the danger they pose.
Alerted by his two dogs barking on Dec. 4, Ferguson went outside and found a colorful banded snake dead near one dog, and the other clearly distressed in the yard. A call to his veterinarian, Dr. Janine Tash of Aalatash Animal Hospital in Gainesville, revealed that the distressed dog, a 3-year-old pit bull terrier named Whiskey, had most likely been bitten by a coral snake.
Ferguson was told that the University of Florida Small Animal Hospital was the only place his animal could receive the antivenom that could possibly save his life. He rushed Whiskey to the hospital’s emergency room.
“In the yard, he’d been panting heavily,” Ferguson said. “On the drive to the ER, I could see him shaking. I knew he’d been bitten.”
Upon Whiskey’s arrival at UF, however, emergency veterinarians noted that the dog was “bright, alert and responsive” and were unable initially to visualize the snake bite, although they said this is not unusual because coral snakes have very small teeth.
Whiskey received antivenom, but unfortunately developed paralysis despite the treatment.
“Within only a few hours, Whiskey began showing clinical signs, becoming totally paralyzed and unable to breathe,” said Dr. Luiz Bolfer, a resident with the UF Small Animal Hospital’s emergency and critical care service.
Whiskey was placed on a mechanical ventilator and was kept on the ventilator for four days, because he was unable to breathe by himself.
The dog soon began to have other problems relating to muscle damage caused by the snake’s venom. UF veterinarians determined that the dog had elevated myoglobin levels in his blood, which led to acute kidney disease. Whiskey was treated with several different medications to help perfuse his kidneys, increase his urine output, decrease the acid in his stomach, regulate acidic content in his blood, and control his irregular heartbeat, Bolfer said.
“Whiskey had no muscle ability,” said Ferguson, who manages a text book store in Gainesville. “His diaphragm wouldn’t work. His lungs were fine, but his muscles wouldn’t allow him to use them.”
So Ferguson waited and hoped, with little to go on.
“My first inclination was to pay for the antivenom and if that didn’t work….” he said, his voice trailing. “I’d always heard of people spending a lot of money on pets. Initially, you might say you won’t do that, but you never know what you’ll do when you’re in the situation. I wound up doing a lot more than I thought I would.”
On the fourth day of his stay at the UF Small Animal Hospital, Whiskey started to breathe on his own against the ventilator machine. Veterinarians took him off of the ventilator to monitor his breathing, and noted that, although still paralyzed, Whiskey was able to breathe normally.
He began to improve a little every day, although veterinarians continued to treat him for the other problems and for pneumonia, a common complication associated with ventilator treatment.
“They told me the venom takes three to five days to go through the system and that his prognosis would be excellent if we would keep him on a ventilator during the time he was paralyzed.” Ferguson said.
“Finally, he started moving his legs and we moved him to a bed on the floor,” said Bolfer. “Whiskey was still not able to swallow due to his muscle paralysis, so we placed a nasoesophageal feeding tube that bypasses the mouth to deliver food directly to his stomach.”
On the eighth day of his stay at UF, Whiskey began eating canned food on his own. The feeding tube was removed and Whiskey began a program of physical therapy.
Ten days after being taken to the UF Small Animal Hospital’s emergency room, Whiskey was finally discharged and able to return home with his owner.
“He’ fine,” Ferguson said. “He’s just tired a lot, but he’s been walking a lot. He’s just a sweet dog to begin with.”
UF veterinarians finally found the snake’s tiny bite marks….on Whiskey’s tongue.