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, on sunny trails or in tall grass.
Rattlesnake dangers for dogs are real and potentially tragic. Dogs explore 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 — most by rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnake dangers for your dog
Your dog is at greatest risk from a rattlesnake during the months of April through October. Snakes are coming out hibernation, mating, shedding their skins and hunting for rodents, lizards and birds. When temperatures hit 80 to 90 degrees, the snakes come out for warmth. On the hottest days, they may stay in the shade until dusk or dawn.
Hilly areas such as the Hollywood Hills, Griffith Park, the areas on either side of Mulholland Drive and the Santa Monica Mountains are where you are most likely to find rattlesnakes.
Although not usually aggressive, they will strike if threatened. When the rattle at the end of the tail vibrates, the snake is ready to bite. But not always. Sometimes the snake strikes first and rattles later.
Fortunately, California has no other poisonous snakes.
How a rattlesnake bite affects a dog
Many factors affect how dangerous a snake bite is to a dog. These include the type of venom, the season, the location, the snake’s age, how recently it has a struck prey, how large the dog is and where it gets bitten.
Usually dogs get bitten in the face or legs. A bite to the throat is particularly dangerous as the swelling can close up the throat.
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. Blood loss causes shock and death.
The venom of the Mojave rattlesnake works differently. It is a neurotoxic — attacking the nerves and causing paralysis quickly. If the bite is bad enough, the dog becomes unable to breathe and suffocates.
Symptoms of rattlesnake bite
The faster you discover your dog has been bitten, the faster you can get to a vet. Be alert to these signs:
- Puncture wounds, which may or may not bleed.
- Pain and tenderness.
- Restlessness, panting and drooling.
- Lethargy, weakness or collapsing.
- Muscle tremors.
- Slowed breathing.
Treatment for a rattlesnake bite
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. They may refer you to an animal specialty hospital that can deal with the situation better. Carry or walk the dog back to the car and head for the vet or hospital 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 needed. Most dogs bitten by a rattlesnake survive. Prevention is always the best bet.
Tips for avoiding rattlesnake dangers
You don’t have to give up hiking with your dog, but do:
- Keep your dog on a short (six-foot) leash when you are hiking. You will have a better chance of pulling your dog away if you see or hear a rattlesnake. Most rattlesnake bites occur when a dog is roaming off-leash or on a flexi-leash.
- Use wide, marked trails or fire roads. This makes it easier to see snakes as you walk. Avoid narrow, brushy trails or rock falls where rattlesnakes can hide.
- Be 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.
- Wear heavy boots and carry a stick to poke ahead into overgrown areas. Both help warn snakes that you are coming.
If you do see or hear a rattlesnake, freeze. Calmly check to see where the snake is and if there are more than one. Then slowly back away until you aren’t in striking distance. 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 likely others.
Given enough room, however, rattlesnakes usually retreat.
Anti-snake bite vaccination
Another option, available since the early 2000s, is vaccinating your dog against rattlesnake bites. More than 100,000 dogs have been given the vaccine since it first came to market. But according to Valerie Wiebe, Pharm.D. of the University of California at Davis, there’s “little fact-based data to support the efficacy of the vaccine to date.” What that means to a dog owner is that there is little proof that it works.
The vaccine doesn’t cover all types of rattlesnakes. Dogs need frequent boosters as well. Even vaccinated dogs should be taken immediately for emergency treatment if they are bit. The effects of the vaccine can be overwhelmed if the bite is severe and involves a lot of venom. It’s also less effective if there’s been a lot of time since the dog’s last booster.
Rattlesnake avoidance training
Another option is rattlesnake avoidance training. With a shock collar and controlled exposure to live, muzzled rattlesnakes, a dog learns that coming close to a snake is unpleasant.
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.
If you found this post interesting, you might also like to read these:
- Training dogs to avoid rattlesnakes, June 14, 2013.
- Rattlesnake avoidance training best defense, April 24, 2019.