Saturday, October 14, 2006

Drinking a River

Congratulations to ABM for taking second place in the "I Love This Dog Photo Contest" sponsored by Fredericksburg Animal Hospital, Schering-Plough, Dog Manners Behavior and Obedience, and Fredericksburg Parks & Recreation. A photograph of an embalmed puppy in a bundle of fabric flowers took first.
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Oct. 14:

Coexistence for snakes and dogs

Andrew McAfee of Fredericksburg has been interested in snakes and their behavior since childhood. When asked, "Why snakes?" McAfee smiles and says: "It was a natural outgrowth of my childhood interest in dinosaurs. I got my first pet snake in the fourth grade and I've been hooked on reptiles ever since."

McAfee is often asked, "How do I rid my yard of snakes?" If you live in wooded areas and like flower beds and natural atmosphere, your dog will benefit from your knowing when and why snakes are most active.

McAfee explains: "The aspects of a garden that make them pleasing to people are often the same aspects that attract wildlife. Heavy plant growth, rockwork and moisture provide snakes the resources they seek: cover, basking areas, water and food."

McAfee continues: "Most snakes in our area are active from April to November. Peak activity depends on the snake species in question. Many water snakes are active in the daytime, not at night, and bask in full daylight by rivers and streams. Rat snakes are typically most active at dawn and dusk. Copperheads have an activity shift with the seasons, being daylight-active (diurnal) in the spring and fall and nocturnal during summer. This shift is attributable to the temperature differences between these seasons.

"In spring and fall, copperheads avoid the cold nights that make them sluggish. In summer they avoid the high heat of the day. This activity shift correlates to a diet shift. Copperheads eat nocturnal, warm-blooded (endothermic) rodents in the summer and diurnal, cold-blooded (ectothermic) frogs and lizards in the spring and fall."

Pet lovers' desire to drive snakes out of our yards may be an unrealistic goal. McAfee says: "Except for the racers, Virginia-area snakes are generally not in the habit of fleeing. They are not very fast, and motion draws the attention of predators. Snakes are more likely to hide. Noise and commotion may force snakes deeper into hiding, but probably not out into the open."

What kind of senses do snakes have? Will noise, vibrations or anti-snake products encourage snakes to flee our flower beds? McAfee offered little encouragement for the success of products to ward off snakes. He told me: "I have seen commercial snake repellents at the hardware store. These are typically some combination of sulfur and naphthalene. I don't know if these repellents work at repelling snakes, but your dog is at less risk from snakebite than it would be from ingesting naphthalene."

McAfee's best advice is: "Use reasonable precautions. Wear footwear in the yard, use a flashlight at night, don't reach blindly into holes or leaf litter. Pay attention to your dog's behavior in the yard. Most snakes have threat displays to prevent escalation and scare predators away. Unfortunately, some dogs may find these displays more intriguing than threatening. There's always a chance that a dog might step on a concealed snake and get bitten."

For dog owners who are determined to rid their outdoor surroundings of copperheads, McAfee advises supporting wildlife species that are the natural enemies of copperheads: kingsnakes and predatory birds such as hawks and owls.

Is there any way to get away from snakes? McAfee shook his head and laughed, saying, "You could move to Ireland." We both agreed that we intend to stay here in Virginia with our curious dogs. To keep pets safe in the big backyard, we must find ways to coexist with the snakes, which were here before us and which show no signs of giving up their homeland.

The secret to a well-behaved dog and to a safe dog are one and the same: supervise, supervise and supervise some more. Where your dog goes, your watchful eye and your good judgment must go with him.


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