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How to Help Your Dog Avoid and Deal with Snake Bites

In California, the weather is getting better, and many people and their pets are getting outside.  You must be aware that although rattlesnakes are found year-round in southern California, they are most active in the warmer seasons. In the United States, about 8,000 people each year get bitten by snakes. Dogs are very curious and can be protective, making them about 20 times more likely to be bitten by venomous snakes than people.  

Rattlesnake venom is “hemotoxic.”  This means it will damage blood vessels and cause extreme swelling and pain where the bite is.  The toxin can lead to uncontrolled bleeding around the body leading to blood loss, shock, and death.  Bites around the face are considered more dangerous since the swelling can also impair breathing.  There can also be some “neurotoxic” effects that can damage nerve transmission and result in paralysis.

It can be difficult to tell if a snake is venomous or not.  Most nonvenomous snakes have a large smooth cap over the top of their head past the eyes.  Rattlesnakes and other venomous pit vipers have a pit between and slightly below the eye and nostril.  If hiking with your pet, become familiar with the local wildlife, including snakes.  Try to stay on open paths.  Keep your dog on a leash since they like to explore holes and dig under rocks or trees where snakes can live.  Do not let your pet even try to stiff or examine an apparent dead snake since dead pit vipers can still have some muscle contractions after death and inject venom.  There are no good snake repellants.  Around your home, it is best to keep the brush cut down and clean up debris and firewood.  Special fencing set a foot or two into the ground may also help.

If your pet gets bitten by a snake, but you are not sure if it is a rattlesnake or not, it is best to seek immediate veterinary care.  We never know if a bite was “dry” – meaning no venom was injected – or if it contained a high amount of toxin.  Even if your pet may initially look okay, the speed of treatment is critical.  Severe signs may not develop until several hours after the bite.  When your pet is brought into the veterinary hospital, the doctor will assess the injury.  Medications to control pain are usually given.  The risk of a bacterial infection from a snake bite is low, but antibiotics are sometimes also given.  Tests will be done to check the blood’s clotting and see if there are damaged red blood cells.  Any swelling is measured to check how your pet is responding to treatment.  The most important medication is antivenin.  This can be expensive, but it is so important to try to neutralize the venom.  We have to start this slowly to make sure your pet does not have a reaction to the treatment.  Expect your pet to be hospitalized for a day or more to ensure a good recovery.  Besides treatment for the toxins, we also must treat the wound itself.  Fortunately, most dogs have a favorable outcome with treatment.

Many cities have classes available for avoidance training for dogs.  They teach a dog to recognize the smell and sounds of a snake.  There is also a vaccination available to lessen the severity of a venomous bite from the Western Diamondback by allowing the dog to produce antibodies to the venom.  There are initially two doses given about a month apart.  The protection peaks in 30-45 days and may last a year.  However, if you are in an area with many rattlesnakes, it is recommended the vaccination be given every six months.  We hope that you and your pets have a pleasant spring and summer and stay safe.

– Dr. Ronald Resnick says, “I graduated from Tufts University in 1987.  Tufts is considered the best veterinary school in the world (I know, I asked the dean).  While in veterinary school, I also taught at Harvard University.”


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