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Can Dogs Smell Snakes? What Science Tells Us

Lindsey Lawson

By Lindsey Lawson

close up dog nose

After the cold of winter, warmer weather emerges and so do many of the local wildlife we share our environment with, including snakes. We already know that dogs have an incredible sense of smell – but is it strong enough to smell our slithery friends?

Yes, dogs can smell snakes and other reptiles, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s evidence they can even tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous species. Crazy, right? Let’s learn more.

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A Dog’s Sense of Smell

A dog’s sense of smell is its most powerful sense and it is finely tuned beyond what any human being could imagine experiencing. Because of this, dogs are used in various types of scent work including disease detection, drug detection, finding missing persons, and much more.

Their sense of smell has evolved to such extraordinary capabilities as a means of survival. According to Dr. Michael T. Nappier, DVM, DABVP of the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, their sense of smell “is so sensitive that dogs can detect the equivalent of 1/2 a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool” 1.

Our pups have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to a human’s approximately 6 million. They are even able to smell separately with each nostril, making their brain capable of smelling in 3D by using different odor profiles from each. This is one reason why they are so accurate in determining where a smell is located.

Dogs can even smell the passage of time by detecting reductions in the concentrations of odor molecules that occur over short periods. This allows scent-tracking dogs to follow the direction of a scent by putting their nose on the ground.

dog smelling leaf
Image Credit: Mylene2401, Pixabay

The Science Behind Dogs Smelling Snakes

Many snakes secrete musk as a defense mechanism to deter predators. Humans can easily smell this musk when up close and personal with the snake, but dogs can most certainly smell this musk from a much farther distance, and long after it’s been secreted.

Aside from musk, snakes and other reptiles give off an odor that goes undetected by the limited ability of the human nose. It should come as no surprise that it’s not just the musk that our pups can smell, but they can pick up on the snake itself.  A paper in Applied Animal Behavior Science found that dogs were able to smell the difference between a venomous rattlesnake and a non-venomous boa constrictor 2.

Interestingly, it was found that the dogs found the smell of the rattlesnake intriguing, rather than something to fear. This made them much more inquisitive and willing to investigate further, which puts them at risk of being bitten when the snake feels threatened.

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The 5 Tips in Keeping Your Dog Safe Around Snakes

Since dogs are often curious about snakes and typically dive in nose-first to sniff out this strange creature, it can lead to a bite to the face. Snakes will begin to emerge once the warmth of spring comes around, which is also when dogs and their humans start taking more frequent walks and outdoor adventures.

Even venomous snakes aren’t set out to harm dogs or humans but will defend their lives when they feel threatened.  Since you want to keep your dog safe from a potential snake bite, here are some safety tips to keep in mind.

dog looking at the window
Image Credit: Pixabay

1. Keep Your Yard Well-Maintained

Snakes spend most of their time hiding away under natural or artificial cover, only to emerge when it’s time to hunt for prey. They will search for various structures or objects to burrow under that make them feel safe and secure from predation until it’s mealtime. This includes rocks, leaf litter, logs, overgrown vegetation, toys, yard ornaments, sheds, and much more.

Make it a point to keep your yard mowed, have leaves picked up during the fall, and pick up random objects and toys. Always be mindful of areas that snakes would use as cover, and you’re less likely to have a run-in.

2. Keep Your Dog on a Leash

When you are out and about, one of the best ways to ensure your dog’s safety is by keeping them leashed. This isn’t just to protect them from snakes, but also from other animals, becoming lost, or being hit by a vehicle. If you keep your dog close by and under your control, it will keep them well within your eyesight making it easier to avoid snakes and anything else that could capture your dog’s interest.

a service dog on a leash
Image Credit: Belish, Shuttesrtock

3. Stick to Clearly Marked Trails When Hiking

During the hottest part of the day snakes will retreat to cool, shaded areas with heavy brush, overgrown vegetation, and plenty of places to hide. When you go out for a hike, consider sticking to the clear, marked trails that will make it less likely you run into a snake.

4. Avoid Overgrown Areas

Regardless of whether you are out hiking, outdoors working, or just exploring the beautiful, natural world around us, you may want to consider avoiding those overgrown areas altogether if your dog is with you.

As mentioned, snakes will gravitate toward these areas for cover, so steering clear of overgrowth will help lessen your chance of coming up on one by surprise. Not to mention, this will also help you and your pup avoid those pesky ticks and thorny brush.

woman taking her Vizsla dog for a hike or walk
Image Credit: aliaksei kruhlenia, Shutterstock

5. Supervise Your Dog

According to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, dogs are at an increased risk of getting bitten by a snake because they put their nose to the ground while exploring their environment.  Keep your dog under constant supervision when you are outdoors. Their sense of smell allows them to pick up on so many things around them that their interest is sure to be piqued at some point.

Not only is it important that you have your dog well-trained to obey your commands, but also remain watchful when you are out and about. If something sparks their curiosity, keep them at a safe distance until you can determine whether it’s safe or not.

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Learn How to Identify Local Snake Species

It’s important for both your and your dog’s safety that you can identify which of the snakes endemic to your region are venomous and which are not. Venomous snakes have evolved to subdue prey by injecting venom directly into the bloodstream.

This is how they eat and a means of self-defense, and the best way to keep everyone safe is to know which ones pack that venomous punch. This will allow you to make better decisions when observing the wildlife around you and you can stay well out of strike range. In the event of a bite, knowing which species you or your dog were bitten by can be very helpful with treatment.

copperhead snake roll
Image Credit: Jumpstory

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What to Do in the Event of a Snake Bite

Snakes aren’t out to hurt you or your dog, but if you get too close and they feel threatened, they will defend themselves just like any other animal. This goes for both venomous and nonvenomous species, but when you’re dealing with the venomous type, it can quickly turn into an emergency.

Thankfully, with prompt treatment, most snake bites are not fatal. But if your dog is bitten, you should know how to respond to the situation. If you’ve witnessed the event, move away from the snake as soon as possible. They are only defending themselves and they will not try to chase you if you move away.  They’ll often either slither away or remain in place.

If your dog was bitten by a nonvenomous snake, the puncture wounds may be so small they’re hardly visible, but if they are, you can clean the bite thoroughly and everything will be just fine. If you have any concerns, call your veterinarian.

If your dog was bitten by a venomous snake, however, you need to seek prompt veterinary care. If your veterinary clinic does not have after-hours services, reach out to a nearby emergency clinic to get prompt care.

Signs a Dog Has Been Bitten by a Venomous Snake

There are times when you may not realize your dog has been bitten by a venomous snake until the clinical signs start to appear. These signs can vary depending on the type of snake, the amount of venom injected, and the area of the body where the bite occurred.

Venom is made up of enzymes and toxins that cause cell damage within the body. The majority of snake bites in the United States come from pit vipers and the signs to look for include:

  • Swelling
  • Puncture wounds (may or may not be visible due to swelling/or the size of the snake’s teeth)
  • Pain
  • Bruising
  • Redness
  • Bleeding from the puncture wound
  • Tissue death–necrosis (often looks like black, leathery skin)
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Muscle twitches/tremors
  • Bleeding from the nose, gums, and bloody urine
  • Trouble breathing
  • Shock
veterinarian examining a sick Rhodesian ridgeback dog
Image Credit: Zontica, Shutterstock

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Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, which is why they are given so many duties that involve scent detection and tracking. They can smell snakes and have even been proven to tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous species. Since dogs do not have a fear of venomous species, it is our duty as owners to keep them safe from the dangers that can result from their inquisitive nature and prevent them from coming in contact with snakes and other local wildlife, not just for the safety of the dog, but for the wild animal as well.

Featured Image Credit: LUM3N, Pixabay

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