All of the rainfall this last winter and spring has brought a boom in local wildlife. Unfortunately, in Southern California, this includes the local rattlesnake population and rattler sightings have been alarmingly frequent, even in residential areas. This can spell serious trouble for our four-legged family members, particularly for dogs who love to play outside. While cats are generally instinctively cautious around snakes, dogs much more commonly let their curiosity get the better of them. Rattlesnakes are venomous and their bites can be deadly if not treated quickly by a veterinarian. Knowing a few tips on how to avoid snake encounters and how to react if your dog is bitten can be a literal life-saver!
Rattlesnakes can be found just about anywhere in Southern California but there are certain areas where they prefer to live. Areas with tall grass and high brush are often the hunting grounds of rattlers and should be avoided during dusk and after night fall; when rattlesnakes are most active. During the day time, snakes usually burrow under rocks, leaves, logs, and piles of dead brush. Staying on the path and not letting your dog dig under such burrows should keep you away from dangerous snake encounters.
To avoid bites in the first place, it is advisable to keep your dog on a 6 foot or shorter leash when walking or hiking through areas with brush or grass, where snakes like to live. This gives you the opportunity to hear the rattle or see the snake and avoid it before your dog can get close enough to be bitten. Most dogs who are bitten by snakes while walking are off-leash or on a retractable lead and their owners were not able to keep them from running up to the snake in time.
If you live in an area where rattlers are common, a great tool for avoiding snake bites is ‘snake training’. This is a service offered by many dog trainers in which your dog is taught how to recognize and avoid rattlesnakes on their own.
Another good option is the rattlesnake vaccine which is available at most vet offices and shot clinics and can be given to any dog that may come into contact with rattlesnakes as a preventative measure. This vaccine doesn’t make your dog immune to rattler bites but it does help your dog’s body produce antibodies that minimize the effects of the venom. The vaccine is effective against the venom of Western diamondback, timber, and sidewinder rattlesnakes. Dogs with the vaccine who are bitten experience less pain and swelling from a bite and have a lowered risk of long-term complications or secondary infections that can be caused by rattlesnake venom. Dogs with this vaccine also require less anti-venom to recover. While the vaccine costs as little as $30 per dose at a vaccine clinic, the anti-venom can cost $500 to $1000 per vial. By taking this preventative measure, you can minimize the cost of treatment and the overall impact of the venom on your dog’s health.
If your dog is bitten while it is playing outside by itself, it isn’t always apparent to the owner what has happened. To check for snake bites, look for small puncture wounds that may bleed. Dogs investigate everything with their noses, so most bites occur on the snout or face but may be elsewhere. For some dogs, thick fur may obscure the puncture marks but the area will generally swell quickly. Other symptoms of rattlesnake bite include muscle tremors, lethargy, whining, diarrhea, seizures, or labored breathing, depending on the progression and type of venom.
There are several different kinds of rattler in Southern California and they have different kinds of venom. If you see the snake that has bit your dog, try to take note of its markings to describe to your vet. Rattlesnakes do not always rattle so look for the dark rattle cone on the tip of the tail if you have a chance to observe the snake. The rattle cone may have broken off of a rattlesnake but all rattlesnakes have vertical, slit pupils, and broad, triangular heads that are wider than the neck. To determine the type of rattlesnake, note the shape of the saddle-pattern on their back and the color of the rings around the tail. The Western Diamondback has a clearly defined, wide diamond pattern and large black and white rings around the tail, while sidewinders and western rattlers have less defined saddle-marks and tan rings around the tail. This can save precious time in determining how to treat the dog if they know which anti-venom to use. However, you should never put yourself at risk by approaching a rattlesnake in order to identify it.
If you are able to, carry your dog to the car. If not, walk it slowly and calmly to the car in order to minimize its movements. Staying relaxed slows the venoms progress. Drive to the nearest vet hospital and call ahead to ensure that they have the anti-venom on hand.
Kahooligan Tip - Knowing how to react in a timely manner could save your dog’s life, but prevention is always a better option. Being prepared through proactive vaccines, being alert during walks in areas with heavy brush, and knowing how to respond to a bite can keep your furry family members out of harms way.