MEDORA, N.D.-It was a gorgeous day for a hike in the Badlands. Not too hot, with some moody clouds that made the sky interesting and the sun less intense. Everything was perfect until my dog yelped.
Zooey, my yellow Labrador retriever, whimpered and held up her front left paw, which she started licking furiously. I immediately suspected that she'd stepped on a prickly cactus, which were all around us. I crouched down and inspected her paw, which had begun to swell.
Oddly, I found no cactus needles. But given the evident pain she was in, I knew our hike was over. Fortunately, we weren't far out on the trail, and Zooey was able to limp to the car. Inside, I glanced at the dashboard clock and knew it would be a challenge to make it to a veterinary clinic before closing time.
Then I was struck by a chilling realization: Zooey's paw had two dark marks-snake fangs. And in this rugged country, that likely meant a prairie rattlesnake. Luckily, I was able to get a signal on my cell phone and called a vet clinic in Dickinson.
I knew I was in a race against the clock. Rattlesnake bites can be deadly and, at the very least, can cause permanent damage. The good news: the clinic had anti-venom in stock and would stay open for a medical emergency.
I drove as fast as I could on the winding, rural road. I made good time until I had to stop for a road construction crew. My heart sank as I joined a long line of cars waiting for the pilot car to shepherd us through the construction zone.
Parked, the engine idling, I looked back to check on Zooey. I was alarmed to see a pool of dark liquid. Blood? I got out, opened the gate and saw that she had vomited. Not only that, her paw was now badly swollen, and she was in obvious distress.
I no longer had any doubts. I was dealing with a snake bite. Earlier in the day, I'd had to wait 10 or 15 minutes for the pilot car. I couldn't afford to wait that long, so broke the line and sped to the front.
After seeing my dog, the flag man quickly recognized the emergency. "You can stay at the front of the line," he said. "But I can't let you go. There's a crane working ahead. You'll have to wait."
Every year, an estimated 150,000 animals, mostly dogs and cats, are bitten by poisonous snakes in the U.S. That's a much higher number than the approximately 4,700 venomous snake bites in humans reported each year to poison centers.
The prairie rattler is common throughout the central and western Dakotas. I've hiked, often with a dog, in rattlesnake country many times. Having grown up in Pierre, S.D., where rattlers populate the hilly Missouri River country, I've always been well aware of how the snakes lurk in the grass.
I've seen lots of dead rattlesnakes, often on highways where they were run over, but only one live rattler, a juvenile that made the mistake of wandering into the yard of Mrs. Hoard, a retired teacher, who dispatched it with a garden hoe.
I didn't see or hear the rattler that bit Zooey. She apparently surprised the snake, which struck before giving a warning rattle, then slithered away into the grass and brush near the trail. Because the day was overcast and a bit cool, it's possible the snake was out getting some sun.
If you or your dog are bitten by a rattlesnake, there's little you can do except stay as calm as possible, or keep your dog as quiet as possible, and get to medical care as quickly as possible.
When I was a Boy Scout, we were trained to apply a tourniquet to isolate the venom-that's bad advice, and can actually increase the damage, so is no longer recommended. Also, when I was a kid, first aid kits often came with a razor and rubber suction cups, which were to be used to try suck out the venom.
Again, that practice has been discarded as likely to cause more harm than good.
Inside the body of its victim, rattlesnake venom breaks down blood cells and tissues. The longer the poison has to act, the worse the damage.
Once on Interstate 94, let's just say I made record time driving to Dickinson, having been given directions to the State Avenue Veterinary Clinic over the phone, where they were waiting with the antidote.
Zooey was lethargic and incapable of walking when we arrived at the clinic. A vet tech helped me carry her inside and we placed Zooey on a blanket on the floor.
Dr. Shelley Lenz, the founder of State Avenue Vet Clinic, listened to her heart and checked other signs. The heartbeat, she said, was good. Several factors weighed in Zooey's favor. She drooled unusually thick saliva, a symptom of poisonous snakebite in dogs.
The fact that she's a large dog, weighing more than 80 pounds, helped. The location of her bite, on her paw, also was fortunate. Bites on the torso allow the venom to circulate more quickly. And bites on the tongue are often fatal.
"A defensive bite often has less venom than a fighting bite," Lenz said. In Zooey's case, we'll never know if the bite was defensive or aggressive.
Also, because only an hour had passed since she was bitten, time was now on her side. Lenz administered the anti-venom by intravenous drip. She also gave her antihistamine, the generic equivalent of Benadryl, and antibiotics as a precaution, as well as painkiller and IV fluids.
Zooey visibly improved after given the medications, and Lenz said she was optimistic. After an hour or two, I took her to our motel, with the IV catheter in place in case she might need further treatment.
The next morning, Zooey was her peppy and mischievous self, able to walk unassisted and without a limp. We went back to the clinic for a follow-up check. Her bloodwork was normal. No sign of damage.
"At this point, I'd say she's out of the woods," Dr. Laura Beaudoin said.
Later, when talking to Lenz, I said I'd probably wait until after the fall freeze to hike again with my dog in the Badlands, when the snakes presumably are inactive.
Even that is no guarantee, said Lenz, who estimates she treats five to 10 rattlesnake bites per year in dogs and horses, sometimes in September and October.
"There's nothing more enjoyable than hiking with your dog," she said. "I still think the benefits outweigh the risks."
Tips for hiking with a dog in rattlesnake country
• Call ahead to identify veterinary clinics that carry the antidote and to check on the availability of emergency services. Keep the address and phone number.
• Keep your dog on a leash up to six feet in length.
• Take Benadryl with you. A 50-milliliter bottle is recommended for large dogs, 25 milliliters for small dogs. The antihistamine reduces swelling, which can cause damage, and helps calm the dog.
• Rattlers are most likely to be found in areas that are rocky, have dense brush or are grassy.