If you live in Southern California, you live in rattlesnake country. From the sea to the high desert, from the wilderness to the backyard, rattlesnakes lurk under rocks, sun on trails or hide in tall grass.
For a dog running nose to the ground, a rattlesnake can be a fatal surprise. More than 15,000 domesticated animals are bitten by snakes in the United States every year — and most are from rattlesnakes.
Know your foe
Rattlesnakes are the only poisonous snakes in California. They like open, rocky areas with lots of rodents, lizards and birds best. They prefer 80 to 90 degree temperatures, but they can survive below freezing.
Snakes don’t have hearing, but they are sensitive to ground vibrations. Wearing heavy boots and carrying a stick to poke into overgrown areas helps warn them away.
Although not usually aggressive, they will strike if threatened. The vibrating rattle at the end of the tail is a warning that the snake is ready to bite. Take note, sometimes they strike first and rattle later. Give them enough room, however, and they usually retreat.
If you hear the rattle, freeze, check to see where and how many snakes are near you, make sure you have a clear path and slowly retreat with your dog.
Protecting your dog from rattlesnakes
You don’t have to give up hiking with your dog, but do:
- Keep your dog on a six-foot leash when you are hiking. With a shortened leash, you have a better chance of pulling your dog away if you see or hear a rattlesnake ahead of you. Most rattlesnake bites occur when a dog is roaming off-leash or is on a flexi-leash.
- Keep to wide, marked trails or fire roads. This makes it easier to see snakes as you walk. Avoid narrow, brushy trails or rock falls where it’s hard to see what is around you.
- Stay alert to your surroundings. Look ahead and around yourself and your dog as you walk.
- Stay alert to your dog. Your dog’s sense of smell and hearing are much better than yours. Closely watching his body language may give you an early warning about a snake in the area.
If you do see a rattlesnake, calmly and slowly back away until you aren’t in striking distance any more. This is about the length of the snake. A snake can strike from any position. Listen for the rattling to stop. Leave the area. Where there’s one snake, there’s a good chance there will be others.
Anti-snake bite vaccination
Another option, available since the early 2000s, is vaccinating your dog against rattlesnake bites.
The vaccine, made from western diamondback rattlesnake venom, reduces the effects of a bite. If bitten, the dog will still need immediate medical attention, but is less likely to die from the bite.
A dog is given two initial vaccinations three to six weeks apart, followed by boosters every six months in areas where rattlesnakes are active year round, such as Southern California.
According to Valerie Wiebe, PharmD, of the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the vaccine costs $20 to $40 per shot. Be aware that this vaccine is less effective if a dog is bitten by a Mojave rattlesnake, which has a different type of venom than the diamondback rattlesnake.
Rattlesnake avoidance training
A third option is rattlesnake avoidance training. Using a shock collar and controlled exposure to rattlesnakes, the dog is trained that coming close to a snake results in sensations to avoid. We’ll cover that in our next post.
Snake-proofing your yard
If you live in areas prone to rattlesnakes, snake proof your yard.
Snakes can get through any fence that doesn’t have a solid, deeply buried cement base (like a block wall). If you have wooden or open metal fence, dig a 22-inch deep trench. Put the bottom part of a 40-inch piece of hardware cloth in the bottom of the trend. Attach the remaining 18-inches above the ground to the fence, then fill in the trench to hold the hardware cloth in place. The mesh should be no wider than a quarter of an inch.
Be sure to keep your lawn cut short. Get rid of brush or piles of rocks where snakes might sun or hide. Don’t get a false sense of security from this. Rabbits can burrow under snake fencing or even concrete walls. Snakes can follow after.
Impact of a rattlesnake bite on a dog
The danger of a snake bite is depends on the type of venom, the season, the geographical area, the age of the snake, how recently it has a struck prey, the size of the dog and the location of the bite.
Most rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic — it breaks down the blood vessels. As much as a third of a bitten dog’s total blood volume can leak into surrounding tissues, if the bite is severe. The swelling is painful. The blood loss causes shock and death.
The venom of the Mojave rattlesnake works differently. It is a neurotoxic. It attacks the nerves and causes paralysis quickly. If the bite is bad enough, the dog eventually is unable to breathe and suffocates.
Most dogs get bitten in the face or legs. A bite to the throat is particularly dangerous as the swelling can close up the throat.
Symptoms of rattlesnake bite
The faster you’re aware that your dog has been bitten, the faster you can get to a vet. Here are some things to be alert to:
- Puncture wounds. These may or may not be bleeding.
- Pain and tenderness.
- Restlessness, panting and drooling.
- Lethargy, weakness or collapsing.
- Muscle tremors.
- Slowed breathing.
Symptoms of a rattlesnake bite vary depending on the size of the dog and the snake and how much venom gets into the dog’s system.
Treating a dog bitten by a rattlesnake
If your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, keep him as quiet as possible. This slows the circulation of the venom in the dog’s body. Call your vet’s office immediately so they can be prepared when you come in. Carry or walk the dog back to the car and head for the vet as quickly as possible.
Do not do any of the following:
- Cut into the bite
- Try to suck out the venom
- Apply ice.
- Apply heat.
- Apply a tourniquet.
Once your dog arrives, the vet will start intravenous fluids (an IV) and watch the dog’s blood pressure. The vet may give antihistamines for the swelling and to calm the dog during treatment.
If the dog reaches the vet within four hours of the bite, antivenin maybe given through the IV. Antivenin costs at least $400 per vial, and a large dog may need several. A newer type of antivenin made from sheep antibodies costs even more — $700 per vial.
Blood transfusions, antibiotics to control infections and medicines to control pain may also be given to treat rattlesnake bite. Most dogs bitten by a rattlesnake will survive. Prevention is always the best bet.
Tomorrow’s post will cover one of the most practical ways to keep your dog safe from rattlesnakes.