Rusty, a 12-year-old miniature American shepherd, recently faced a life-threatening encounter in his own backyard. A suspected copperhead bite left him in a critical state, but thanks to prompt and specialized care from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Rusty's story is one of resilience and recovery. 

Known for his love of the outdoors, Rusty was exploring his backyard when he was bitten on the cheek by a snake hidden in some brush. The bite quickly led to swelling and lethargy, alarming his owner, Katie Baker. Recalling the incident, Baker said, "His whole neck and face were swollen. He looked like the Michelin Man.” 
Baker rushed Rusty to a local animal hospital, where doctors suspected snake envenomation. Rusty was referred to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for specialized care. 
At the hospital they met Hanna Wachtel, who recently joined the emergency and critical care team at the teaching hospital. Before moving to Virginia, she lived in Arizona where venomous snakes are more common – and more dangerous. “I’ve dealt with a lot of snake bites and immediately had a high suspicion that’s what we were dealing with,” she said.

Rusty was admitted to the ICU and received two vials of antivenom, a serum containing antibodies to combat the effects of various toxins. Wachtel explained: “Antivenom is effective because it neutralizes the circulating venom and helps prevent complications associated with a bite.” 

Treating Rusty was not without challenges. “With an older dog like Rusty, we have to consider his overall health,” said Wachtel. “Antivenom treatment can cause a reaction in some pets. So, we had to consider the severity and location of the bite, the type of snake, and how much venom was injected before proceeding with the treatment.”

Baker, impressed with the care at the hospital, said, “I like the clarity and the decisiveness of Virginia Tech. They were able to tell me right away what it was and how they were going to treat it. Dr. Wachtel was super sweet. She did her due diligence there for sure.” 

Rusty’s treatment was successful, and he was able to leave the hospital the next day to recover at home. After a couple of weeks of rest and recovery, Baker reported: “He’s back to happy, healthy Rusty—outside playing with his disc like a champ.” 

Preventing snakebites 

As Rusty's story highlights, it is crucial for pet owners who live in areas where venomous snakes are native to be vigilant and take preventive measures against bites.  

“I still want people to go out and go hiking and go about their lives with their pets, but I also want them to know what to look out for,” Wachtel said. Here are some tips she provided to keep your pets safe:

  • Be aware of your environment: Venomous snakes in Virginia, such as copperheads, are often found in wooded areas, brush, and near water sources. When walking your dog, stay on open paths and avoid tall grasses and piles of leaves where snakes may hide.

  • Keep your yard clean: Regularly maintain your yard by removing debris, tall grass, and piles of wood where snakes can shelter.

  • Leash your dog on walks: Keeping your dog on a leash during walks, especially in wooded areas, allows you to control their movement and prevent them from exploring dangerous spots.

  • Nighttime caution: Snakes are often more active at night. Be extra cautious when letting your dog out after dark. 

  • Educate yourself: Learn to identify the types of snakes common in your area. Not all snakes are venomous, and knowing the difference can be crucial in an emergency.

  • Know where to go: If you suspect your dog has been bitten by a snake, seek veterinary care immediately. Quick action can be lifesaving, so talk with your veterinarian to identify a plan of action should your pet be bitten.

Written by Margie Christianson, communications manager at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing