With springtime and warming temperatures, rattlesnake activity increases, which could put your pets at risk. In this article we will discuss the snakes, snake etiquette, and what to do if your pet is bitten.
Rattlesnakes are the only indigenous venomous snakes in California that can cause serious harm. Rattlesnakes are reclusive, generally avoiding contact with people and pets. If threatened or provoked, they will attack. Rattlesnakes live in the local mountains and deserts, but also in the local foothills such as Orange, Anaheim Hills, Tustin, Yorba Linda, and Chino. They feed on small rodents. They are more commonly encountered in parks and hiking trails in the warmer months. As the temperature cools, they come closer to homes to seek warmth and food (rats and mice). Rattlesnakes are heavy-bodied, blunt-tailed, with one or more rattles on the tail. They have triangular-shaped heads with a distinct “neck” region. They can have alternating light and dark bands near the tail, just before the rattles.
Rattlesnakes will leave you alone if you give them space. They generally like to crawl along the edges of buildings, under bushes, rocks, and logs. If given enough space, they will not attack. Unfortunately, pets tend to ignore the “rattle” of the snake, which is a signal that it will attack. Most bites are on the face and muzzle. Sometimes there are multiple bites. A rattlesnake will leave two deep punctures with sometimes smaller teeth impressions. Non-venomous snakes will leave more small, even teeth marks, lacking the distinctive fangs.
If you see a rattlesnake in your house or yard, remove your pets and children from its presence and call animal control. If it is in your house and animal control is gone, I think it would be enough of an emergency call your local police department or 911. Do not confront the snake, as it will attack if provoked.
Rattlesnake bites are uncommon. Luckily, envenomation occurs only 30% of the time. Snakes do have high levels of pathogenic bacteria in their mouths, so infection is common. If your pet is bitten, stay calm. Swelling is common, so remove the collar if the bite is near the neck. If you are bitten on the finger or arm, remove all jewelry. DO NOT freeze the area or attempt to suck out the venom; this will cause tissue damage and/or risk spreading the venom to your mouth. Minimize activity, as vigorous motion increases circulation of the venom. The venom is very painful so do not touch the area on your pet or you may get bit by your dog. If you are bitten, you will want to go to the emergency room or closest doctor who has antivenin. If a rattlesnake bites your pet, please call us and we will refer you to the closest emergency hospital which has antivenin. We do not have antivenin here in the hospital. Do not panic and get into an accident, but do seek prompt treatment.
There are ways to try to prevent rattlesnake bites to your pets. Since we are in a rattlesnake area, especially if in the hills, your yard should be snake-proofed. Rattlesnake proof fences can be made. They should be solid or mesh no larger than ¼ inch. It needs to be at least 3 feet high with the bottom buried a few inches into the ground. Slanting the fence outward at a 30-degree angle will help. Make sure the gate is flush to the ground. Make sure no snakes are in your yard when the fence is put up, as the fence will prevent snakes from leaving. You need to keep vegetation away from the fence, such as thick bushes and overlying tree branches, as snakes can slither up branches and drop down.
Snake aversion classes are available as well. These are basically exposing your dog to a defanged rattlesnake and in conjunction with small shocks to cause aversion to going near the snake. Not fun for the dog, but potentially life saving.
There is also a rattlesnake vaccine. The goal of the vaccine is to stimulate the dog’s immunity against the proteins in the venom and minimize the risk of allergic reaction. This might reduce the need for expensive antivenom and if you are far from a veterinarian, help buy time to get there. The vaccine may not work 100% and it won’t prevent bacterial infection from the bite. This means that immediate care by a veterinarian is still required after a bite and snake aversion classes and snake proofing is still strongly advised. Our vaccination recommendation is for at risk dogs only (dogs that live in snake areas, hike on local trails, or go camping in rattlesnake areas. The vaccine should be given in the early springtime annually for at risk dogs only. Please note the vaccine is designed for the rattlesnakes found in California. There might be some cross-protection with other species, but it might be minimal.
Remember that snakes are not aggressive creatures and serve a useful purpose by reducing rodent populations. With proper care and diligence, a bite is unlikely.
This article was written based on information from the California Department of Fish and Game. Photo from department of Fish and Game. Please read the article on their website at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/snake.html.