Rattlesnakes kill their prey by injection of poison (or venom) through their fangs. The fangs are hollow teeth that are connected to a poison gland. When the snake strikes, fangs puncture the skin of the victim and the snake releases venom into the wound. Snakes lose their fangs and can grow new ones. They may have one to four fangs at a time. During the winter, rattlesnakes sleep in caves or other hiding places. Baby rattlesnakes are born in the spring and have a full supply of venom at birth. The adult snake can control the amount of venom it injects, and often it injects only part of the venom it has. The baby snake is more likely to inject all of its venom when it bites. Bites from baby rattlesnakes can be very dangerous. Sometimes a rattlesnake does not inject venom when it bites, but there is no guarantee or way to discern this non-medically.
Dogs encounter snakes during play or work in the snake’s natural habitat. Most bites to dogs occur on the face or extremities. The rattlesnake bite is generally “hemotoxic” which means that it exerts its toxin by disrupting the integrity of the blood vessels. The swelling is often dramatic with up to 1/3 of the total blood circulation being lost into the tissues in a matter of hours. The toxin further disrupts normal blood clotting mechanisms leading to uncontrolled bleeding. This kind of blood loss induces shock and finally death. Facial bites are often more lethal as the swelling may include the throat or impair ability to breathe. An exception would be the Mojave rattlesnake whose venom is “neurotoxic.” The bite of this snake causes rapid paralysis. This includes paralysis of the respiratory muscles and suffocation.
ANY snakebite is considered an emergency – no matter the size of the snake or your pet!
The faster the bite is recognized, the more effective the treatment is. Do not try to cut the bite wound open or suck out the poison! Seek veterinary care IMMEDIATELYfor proper treatment of the bite and any secondary problems.
Symptoms of a snakebite include puncture wounds, swelling, redness, pain, blisters, bleeding, panting or other difficulty breathing, crying, whimpering, convulsions, and many other changes in behaviors that should immediately cause concern.
Treatment often includes, but is not limited to, IV fluids, antivenin, antibiotics, pain medication, blood panels, blood transfusions, as well as hospitalization and observation. Emergency treatment can cost thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. Antivenin is often the bulk of the cost. Sometimes, more than one vial is required to treat the animal, and vials can cost several hundred dollars EACH.
Recently, Red Rock Biologics has released a vaccination against the venom of the Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox). This vaccine also protects against the venom of six out of seven of the other California rattlesnakes. Testing on the venom of the Mojave rattlesnake is still pending. Hiking, hunting, and working dogs as well as dogs that live in rattlesnake areas are good candidates for this product. The vaccine is administered in two doses 4 weeks apart (3 doses for very small or very large dogs), boostered six months later, and then bi-annually thereafter at the beginning and end of each rattlesnake season (usually April and September). This vaccine is only available in California.
While no vaccination is 100% prevention, the Rattlesnake Vaccine works on the same principle as the more conventional Rabies or Distemper vaccines. Preventative vaccination allows some extra time to get your pet to the hospital, plus may decrease the amount of antivenin needed to save their life.
Vaccinated pets also need emergency attention if they receive a snakebite.
MAVH offers this vaccination plus information on Rattlesnake Avoidance Training Classes for our canine companions. Please ask any available staff member for more valuable information.