Gainesville resident Larry Ferguson relaxes at home with his dogs, Max, left, and Whiskey, who survived a coral snake bite after being treated at the UF Small Animal Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Larry Ferguson.)
“Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black won’t hurt Jack” might be a familiar folk rhyme in Florida and elsewhere in the deep South to distinguish the deadly Eastern coral snake from the harmless scarlet king snake. But Larry Ferguson, who recently moved to Gainesville from Arkansas, had never heard of a coral snake, much less the danger they pose.
Alerted by his two dogs barking, Ferguson went outside to find a colorful banded snake dead near a clearly distressed dog in the yard. A call to his veterinarian, Dr. Janine Tash of Aalatash Animal Hospital in Gainesville, revealed that the 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 with no visible signs of a snakebite, 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.
The dog, unable to breathe by himself, was placed on a mechanical ventilator for four days. The snake’s venom also led to acute kidney disease. Several different medications were administered to perfuse the animal’s 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 textbook 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.
“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.”
After four days at the UF Small Animal Hospital, Whiskey started to breathe on his own. Veterinarians took him off of the ventilator. The dog remained paralyzed, but was breathing 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
“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 feeding tube that bypasses the mouth to deliver food directly to his stomach.”
On the eighth day, Whiskey began eating canned food on his own. The feeding tube was removed and 10 days after arrival, 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.”
During the course of treatment, UF veterinarians finally found the snake’s tiny bite marks … on Whiskey’s tongue.