Years ago my wife and I lived in Tennessee in a remote hunting lodge five miles from the Tennessee River and three miles from the nearest neighbor. We had our water from a creek that ran by the house. The lodge we heated with a wood-stove. We had no children, but plenty of pets. We had a female cat who mysteriously bore a litter of seven well after we moved to this remote spot. We also had a dog, a Lab-Shepard mix, named Merlin.
One Spring morning we heard Merlin barking. My wife looked out the side door of the lodge and called to me to come quickly. I saw our cats, the mother and all her kittens, standing in a ring around a rattlesnake. Our dog stood well outside the ring.
I don't want to tell any lies. I don't know how to estimate the length of a coiled snake, and it shook its rattles far too fast for me to count them. I can say the reptile was a far larger snake than any other I'd ever seen outside a zoo.
"What will we do?" my wife asked. "Let's call them in," I said, and told Merlin to come inside. The dog carefully edged away from the cats and the snake and then entered the door. The mother cat followed him in, and the kittens followed her. I reached down and shoved the last kitten inside. When I looked up, the snake was gone.
Late in the afternoon of the next day, we noticed Merlin was very quiet and was licking his front left paw. He didn't want me to touch his paw, but I could see two bloody pits like the holes made by ten penny nails on two adjacent toes. I could only suppose Merlin encountered the rattler a second time. The nearest vet's office was forty miles away, and it was too late to take him there. We called and made an appointment for the next day. They told us to keep him quiet and warm. I put a blanket over Merlin and checked on him several times during the night.
The size of the bite surprised the vet. Two different toes on the paws of a big dog had fang marks, so he knew the snake had a very large mouth. After examining a blood sample, he told us Merlin had heart worms and he gave him an injection of an antibiotic for the snakebite. I expected the vet to give Merlin antivenin, but apparently dogs can very easily become sensitized to such a horse serum medicine and go into anaphylactic shock if they ever get horse serum again. Thus, antivenin is given only to dogs who are in danger of dying.
The vet gave me an ointment to apply to the paw and syringe of antibiotic to give to Merlin the next day. I was very much taken aback. I was a city boy, and I'd never given an animal a shot before. I asked the veterinary assistant how to give Merlin the shot. "Weren't you ever in 4-H or anything," she replied. I told her that I'd grown up inside the city limits and hadn't even had the standard high school course in animal husbandry that every kid in a rural high school took. She then explained the procedure for giving a dog an intramuscular injection.
I was very scared to give Merlin the shot. He was a sick dog. What if he bit me? There was, however, no problem. Merlin was too miserable even to pick up his head and look at me when I gave him the shot.
In a few days Merlin was moving about much more comfortably. We returned Merlin to the vet a couple weeks after the bite and learned that the rattlesnake venom may have done him some good. The number of heart worms in his blood was down considerably. Although the fur fell off the bitten toes and the pits scarred badly, this disfigurement only lasted a few months.
Merlin survived, but not all my cats fared well. I had a favorite male kitten who vanished a few months later. I fear the snake got him. I found a cat skeleton the next spring by a tree stump a few hundred feet from the house.
We went back to city life a few months later. Merlin received treatment for heart worms (a series of arsenic injections) and survived many more years.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Triond's TheRealOwner website: