Caution Rattlesnake Sign

Rattlesnake Bites:
Be sure your pet will live to tell the "Tale of the Rattler."

By Jessica Cantrell DVM, PhD

Everyone loves to get out and enjoy our warm Southern California sun, and rattlesnakes are no exception!  Now that the weather is becoming warmer we want you and your pets to be safe as you explore all that Southern California has to offer. 

There are two main groups of poisonous snakes here in the United States:  Pit vipers or rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.) and coral snakes, or Elapids.  Rattlesnake bites are the most common snake-bite related deaths in our pets, and in people.  While the Southern Pacific Rattler is the most common in our region, and accounts for most snake-bites to pets, here is a link that provides an excellent resource guide for the many species of rattlesnakes and their locations in Southern California.

Signs your pet as been bitten by a snake:

Rattlesnake PhotoIn most instances, the bite was witnessed and diagnosis is not a problem.  However, the bite may not have been observed, and a furry haircoat can make it difficult to identify puncture wounds.  With pit viper bites there are usually single or double bleeding puncture wounds that are most commonly observed on the muzzle or legs.  Clinical signs can be seen immediately, but can also have a delayed response time, and include:  severe and intense PAIN at the site of injection.  This is the number one indicators of a snake-bite, and helps differentiate it from other causes of severe swelling.  Additionally, there can be significant swelling where the bite occurred due to tissue destruction and body fluid “leaking” into the damaged area.  Bruising as well as skin discolaration often occurs within hours of the bite, as the venom causes the blood not to clot.  There can also be severe neurologic consquences of snake-bites including muscle tremors, shallow breathing, drooling, vomiting, inability to walk, and collapse.  Pain, swelling, and nuerologic signs generally progresses for up to and over 36 hours from the initial bite!

What to do if your pet is bitten by a snake:

• Assume it is a posonious bite and seek veterinary attention as soon as possible!

• Snake bites are VERY painful, so avoid touching the area where your pet has been bitten.

• If you can do it safely, immobilize the part of your pet that was bitten, and try to keep the area at or below the level of the heart.

• Keep your pet calm and immobile, carry if necessary. 

Most snakes are not outright aggressive, however, they will bite and defend themselves if they feel threatened.  Often dogs are curious and will harass the sliding invader.  Therefore, here are some tips for prevention while out and about, as well as around your house:

• When hiking with your pet, stay on open paths.  Do not let your pup explore holes or dig under rocks. 

• Keep your pet on a leash at all times.  Snakes like to rest in high grass and rocky outcrops. 

• Daytime hikes are often safer, as snakes are nocturnal creatures. 

•  Keep an ear open for that telltale rattling noise.  When you hear that sound, keep your pet at your side.  When you determine where the noise is coming from, move slowly away with your pet. 

• A snake can only strike a distance half it’s body length.  Therefore, if you see a snake that sees you, give the snake time to “just go away” as they are not looking to interact with people or pets.

• Do not let your pet examine a “dead” snake on the side of the road, they can still envenomate. 

• For tips around the home – remove the snakes food supply and shelter by mowing close to the house, storing firewood away from the house, plugging up holes in the ground, and by limiting birdseed waste which can attract rodents that snakes like to prey on.

Rattlesnake Avoidance Training:

“Training” your dog to stay away from rattlesnakes has become increasingly popular and can be effective.  This specialized training uses a mild electric shock to “simulate” the sensation of a snake-bite.  Often, trainers use carefully muzzled live rattlesnakes to associate the shock sensation with the site, smell, and sound of a real rattlesnake.  It is strongly recommended that dogs receive a “refresher course” once a year to keep this important training fresh in their minds. 

A note on the Rattlesnake vaccine:

A “Rattlesnake vaccine” does exist, and it may be useful.  However, there have not been any studies that indicates it is effective.  The object of the vaccine is to in theory, create protective antibodies to neutralize parts of the injected venom.  Therefore, the vaccine may decrease clinical signs and buy the pet more time before they would need treatment.  This is one of the biggest snake-bite myths.  Any pet bitten by any type of snake should be considered an emergency regardless of vaccine status, and be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.   

Take Home Messages:

• Remember, any snake-bite is ALWAYS considered a medical emergency! 

• Your pet needs immediate veterinary assistance as soon as possible regardless of age, size, location of the bite or vaccine status!

•  Irreversible effects of the venom start immediately after the bite – regarless of whether or not your pet has been vaccinated.

• Be sure to let your veterinarian know if your pet has ever been treated in the past for a snake-bite and received antivenin!  In some cases, serious reactions can occur if your pet has received antivenin in the past, and is treated with it a second time.

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