By Dr. Shannon Leggieri, DVM, MS of Claremont Veterinary Hospital, Oakland.
With abundant rainfall across the state the hills are green with lush landscape this spring. As rodents thrive in this green environment so do their predators. This year promises to attract an increased number of snakes following their rodent prey into areas we frequent with our dogs. It is important to know how to avoid, identify and treat canine snakebites to best protect your furry friend this season.
There are many species of snakes present in California, however, few are poisonous to dogs and humans. Most astute California hikers already have their ears erect in hot weather for that strong steady rattling sound in nearby shrubbery. There are eight subspecies of rattlesnakes native to California. They reside in both Northern and Southern California. They prefer warm climates in the mountains, plains and deserts. The trademark rattle at the end of their tail is intended to warn potential aggressors to back off. Rattlesnakes do not hear well. Hence, they detect movement by sensing vibrations in the ground. If you hear a rattle or see a rattlesnake do not make sudden movements; slowly back away with your dog.
Rattlesnakes do not tend to have aggressive natures. Most bites are provoked, or occur from people owning and trying to handle rattlesnakes. Dogs are most often bitten on the muzzle or paws when they are trying to engage with the rattlesnake. You may witness your dog being bit or you may not. Signs of envenomation include swelling, bruising, skin discoloration, intense pain, collapse, vomiting, muscle tremors, or depressed breathing. Signs of toxicity can occur immediately or be delayed several hours. Factors influencing the severity of the snakebite include amount of venom, age of the snake, aggressiveness of the snake, size of the dog, location of the bite, and most importantly time elapsed from bite until medical treatment.
If you know or suspect your dog has been bitten, seek medical attention immediately. Most emergency pet hospitals stock rattlesnake antivenom. Call ahead to alert the emergency hospital of your arrival. Antivenom is expensive but often essential to lessen the severity of toxicity. In addition to antivenom your pet may be hospitalized on IV fluid support, pain management and antibiotics.
The best way to prevent rattlesnake envenomation is to avoid the bite. Stay on open paths with your dog on leash or within recall. Avoid high grass and do not let your pet explore holes or dig under rocks. Around your home keep grass cut short, plug up holes in the ground and limit firewood storage close to the house. There is a rattlesnake vaccination available, however it lacks clinical studies to validate efficacy. Discuss with your veterinarian whether it is appropriate for your dog. Lastly, rattlesnake avoidance training programs are often available in areas where snakebites are frequent and can prove very useful.