It’s rattlesnake season here in California. Did you know that rattlesnakes are responsible for a majority of all snakebite injuries in North America?
If you’re often outdoors with your dog in an area where rattlesnakes are present, you should talk to your vet about the rattlesnake vaccine. It’s a common misconception that only dogs who hike or camp with their owners are bitten when in fact, a majority of all rattlesnake bites to dogs happen within yards of their own homes.
If your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, it’s important not to panic but also to act quickly. Here’s what to do.
0 – 5 Minutes In: Assess the Situation
If you see a rattlesnake bite your dog, move quickly. Your dog will likely yelp and back off a bit, but he may try to fight the snake. Do whatever you can to get him away from the snake (clapping, calling, leash-tugging) without going closer to the snake yourself! It doesn’t help anyone if you both get bitten.
Once your dog is a safe distance from the snake, immediately check for a bite site. Do not touch the bite site with your fingers – venom can enter your bloodstream through any cuts or nicks on your hands.
If you don’t see your dog get bitten but suspect he might have, look for signs. You may have heard a noise from your dog, hear a rattle nearby, or your dog may have clear bite marks somewhere on his body. He may not have any of these symptoms but seems agitated or starting to show signs of swelling. If you’re not sure, treat it like a venomous snake bite to be safe.
At this point, getting to safety and to a veterinary professional are your priorities. If you can, carry your dog back to safety…exertion will cause his blood to pump faster, spreading the toxins throughout his body more quickly.
5 Minutes – 30 Minutes In: Get to a Vet
As soon as possible, get yourself and your dog to a vehicle that will take you to the closest veterinary emergency clinic. If you can, call the clinic on your way to tell them you’re coming so they can have an antivenom kit ready and waiting for your arrival.
If it’s possible, try to elevate the bite area above your dog’s heart so his blood reaches it more slowly. If you can, immobilize your dog and keep him as calm as possible. Remember that snake bites are very painful, so be careful not to be bitten by a pup who’s more agitated than usual.
30 Minutes – 60 Minutes In: Dos and Don’ts
DO NOT use a tourniquet on your dog’s bite area! Rattlesnake bites are particularly hemotoxic which means they damage platelets, red blood cells, and clotting proteins. Concentrating the venom at the bite site increases the likelihood of killing all the surrounding tissue. Because clotting proteins are affected, a tourniquet will not stop the bleeding which is one reason it’s so important to rush to a veterinary office.
DO NOT try to “suck” the venom out of the wound or use any other method for “extracting” venom. Don’t rub anything into the wound and do not use a knife to create an “X” over the bite to release some of the toxins! This will only cause a wound.
DO NOT put ice on the bite area, even as it starts to swell! This will cause necrosis in the affected tissue and won’t lessen the effects of the toxin itself.
DO understand what makes bites more serious:
Every snake’s venom is different and a lot of factors influence how toxic any particular snake’s venom is. Younger snakes, for example, or snakes who haven’t bitten anything in a while will release more potent venom.
Venom works by destroying the body’s tissue. As that tissue is destroyed, fluid rushes into the dead space which causes drastic, sometimes deadly drops in blood pressure. The smaller the dog, the less tissue they have to “lose” without ill-effect.
Where your dog is bitten is also important. Being bitten on the face or legs is actually preferable to being bitten anywhere else on the body. Swelling to these areas is restricted which minimizes the toxin’s ability to spread. The only exception is the neck area where swelling can restrict breathing.
1 Hour – 2 Hours In: Listen to the Veterinarian
The way the emergency veterinarian chooses to treat your dog will have a lot to do with the kind of snake that bit him. Of course, it’s not always possible to know exactly what kind of snake bit your dog (NEVER try to capture a snake to bring it in for identification!) but experienced veterinarians know which signs point to which species of snake.
Rattlesnake bites are usually treated with antivenom injection(s) and treatment for the prevention of shock symptoms. She may give your dog IV fluids throughout the process or begin any number of antibiotic courses to prevent infection. Most snakebitten dogs are kept at least overnight by the hospital to ensure they don’t suffer any unexpected complications.
The prognosis for dogs who are bitten by rattlesnakes is good – as long as you get to the vet as quickly as possible! The sooner antivenom can be administered, the less serious the effects.