Rattlesnake Bites and Your Dog

By: DogTrekker Staff

Vet Buzz from Bill Barboni, DVM and Chris Pitts, RVT,
Marin Pet Hospital, San Rafael, CA

Spring and summer are rattlesnake season in California. Knowing how to lessen your dog’s possibility of exposure to rattlers, as well as knowing what to do in the event of a rattlesnake bite can increase your dog’s longevity.

There are eight different kinds of rattlesnakes in California. They are the only venomous snakes native to the state. The Pacific rattlesnake makes its home in Northern California, while the remaining seven species are Southern California natives. They really do have a rattle on the end of their tails, and they really do shake the rattle to ward off danger. Therefore, if you see a snake with a rattle on the tail, or you hear the telltale ‘rattle’ sound, back away slowly and take your dog with you. 

The nice thing about rattlesnakes is that they typically do not go out of their way to bite people or pets. Rather, if a bite occurs it is because a rattler has been startled or provoked. For instance, your dog sees a snake and thinks it is really interesting and sticks his nose in the snake’s face. In this case your dog might come back to you with puncture marks in his muzzle. (People are most commonly bitten on the hands, feet and ankles. Dogs are most often bitten on the muzzle or shoulder). Usually rattlesnakes prefer to remain somewhat hidden in grass, under rocks, or in wood-piles. And rattlesnakes are typically nocturnal; however, in the spring and summer the chances of seeing a rattlesnake in the middle of the day increase, as do the incidence of bites.

The initial symptoms of a rattlesnake bite include, but are not limited to: two small puncture wounds, swelling, and pain. It may take several hours for the more severe signs to appear: shock, weakness, muscle tremors, depressed respiration, and necrosis (dying off) of the tissue surrounding the bite.

If you think your dog has received a snakebite, you should take him to a veterinarian ASAP. We really do mean ASAP. Don’t stop for lunch after your long hike. Get to the vet. Keep your dog calm. Do not run him to the car, as the increase in his heart rate will speed up the circulation of the venom through his body. Walking him to the car is good, carrying him is better if he will stay calm while you carry him. Drive safely. Do not attempt to capture the snake. If someone you are with does a good Crocodile Hunter impersonation and kills the snake, do not handle it; a dead snake can actually still bite you. Do not try to draw the venom out by sucking the bite. Get your dog to a veterinarian and hope he has a dose of antivenin waiting for you.

The outcome of a rattlesnake bite is extremely variable. The severity of the bite depends on how much venom was injected, how long it took to seek treatment, and where your dog was bitten. Depending on where your dog was bitten, or if necrosis occurs, your dog may need a surgery to remove the dead tissue. In some cases this means the amputation of a limb. The dog will most likely need supportive care; IV fluids, pain relievers, and monitoring for twenty-four hours. The worst case outcome is death.

There is a rattlesnake vaccine available, but it is currently not on the "recommended list of vaccinations" by University of California, Davis,  as it is not entirely effective. Therefore, even if your dog is vaccinated, you still need to seek medical attention right away for your dog if he is bitten.

The easiest way to lessen the chance of running into a rattlesnake is to stick to cleared trails (such as fire roads) and to keep your dog on leash. The extra visibility of a well-maintained trail will better allow you to see a rattlesnake before you are right on top of it. If your dog is on leash, then he is less likely to go scouting out snakes from under rocks, or to find ones hidden in the grass. Lest you think, however, that rattlesnakes are only found hiking the trails, think again. Rattlesnakes are also found on golf courses and in firewood piles on a regular basis. In addition, rattlesnakes can swim. So, if you see a "stick" that seems to be moving around a lot in the water, don’t send your dog after it.