FLORENCE, Texas (KXAN) — “Red and yellow kill a fellow. Red and black, friend of Jack.”
It didn’t take Terri Green more than a split second to identify the deadly coral snake that bit her dog, Pickles, last Thursday. Pickles had buried her face in a log that stood between Green and the shed she was walking to. When Pickles brought her face out of the log, the snake had sunk its teeth into Pickles’ face, on the side of her lip.
“I went and got my shovel and I said ‘Hang on, Pickles.’ And I said, ‘I’m not trying to hit you, baby.’”
Once Green knocked the snake off, she knew Pickles would need medical help immediately. Pickles even started walking like she was dizzy before she could get back to Green’s door. Terri called her vet’s office, Highway 29 Veterinary Hospital in Bertram.
“And she said, you gotta get her here quick. I said, ‘Is she going to live?’ And they said ‘We don’t know.’”
Green sped to her veterinarian’s office from Florence, with her hazard lights flashing.
“We got her there and they said, ‘Terri, we’ve got some bad news. We’ve called everywhere. We’ve called seven people. There ain’t no antivenom for 200 miles.’”
Terri’s veterinarian then tried an odd track: she called University Medical Center Brackenridge. There she got some welcome news. Three vials of antivenin were available, though they were expired. A tech drove the vials from Austin out to Bertram, where Terri’s veterinarian injected one vial into Pickles. According to Terri, the vet said dogs can often use up to 4 vials of antivenin, and results would be a few days away. Pickles was sent to emergency care.
“And of course I start crying really hard.”
Against the odds, Pickles survived. Just one week later, she’s already back to protecting her farm. She is running around, playing catch with her tail wagging. Even though Pickles might continue to have pain for months after her bite, her quick recovery is impressive, considering it took more than five hours to get her lifesaving medicine.
But now her mom, Green, is stuck with a painful bill: that one vial of antivenin cost $5,000. Normally, health insurance would help a person pay for that sort of expensive treatment, but since the antivenin was given to an animal, she’s going to have to pay out of pocket. Green doesn’t have insurance for Pickles.
UMC Brackenridge says it is incredibly rare for a dog to be given antivenin intended for humans. A spokesperson says the hospital has no knowledge of such an antivenin exchange in the past decade. In Austin, the only Seton Heathcare network hospitals that carry antivenin are UMC Brackenridge and Dell Children’s Medical Center, but the hospitals trade vials around to different clinics when needed.
North American Coral Snake Antivenin (NACSA) was the only antivenin approved for use in humans by the FDA, but Pfizer stopped manufacturing it a few years ago, due to high costs. All vials were set to expire in April 2016, after an original deadline extension in 2008. There will likely be another expiration extension coming soon, as the deadline has been extended every year for the past nine years.
Local snake expert Tim Cole with Austin Reptile Service likes to point out that there have been no human fatalities from coral snakes in the U.S. after the antivenin was developed in the late 1960s.
Before the antivenin, human mortality rates after coral snake bites were as high as 10-20 percent. He also says access to the medicine is rare, almost purely for fiscal reasons: “Pharmaceutical companies are out there to make money, and they weren’t making money on a process that’s rather expensive and extensive.”
That means education and awareness are the best forms of defense with coral snakes. Cole says this time of the year is when people can expect to see the largest number of them, as they love wet weather and cool mornings. “Sometimes they’ve been flooded out of the places they’re hiding, so they’re going to come above ground, but when it’s cool in the morning, they’re going to be out, looking for other snakes to feed on.”
One type of coral snake, Micrurus fulvius tenere, is indigenous to some parts of Texas. It can commonly be found throughout most of the state, except the Panhandle and West Texas. Cole says to let a coral snake slither on, if you see one. Chances of a human or animal bite are extremely rare, as long as you aren’t attempting to handle the snake, or invade its space, like Pickles might have been doing. Coral snakes have small, hooked teeth that often can’t penetrate clothing or shoes. If they sink their teeth into skin, though, they’ll be able to inject you with venom.
Even though Pickles survived, it doesn’t make her owner feel much better. She’s worried about access to medicine for any other dogs or cats that get bitten, and especially people. She asks, “So if there’s only three vials of antivenom, and it takes six to seven vials for humans, what are we going to do?”