Rattlesnake bites are a serious medical emergency for any animal that is bitten. Dogs are commonly bitten by rattlesnakes in their own yards & porches or while out on the trail. The bite of a rattlesnake causes a lot of inflammation, swelling and pain in the bitten area and can cause systemic reactions- shock or anaphylaxis, bleeding disorders and even death. Infection of the bite site is a problem as well, as snake mouths are just a s bacteria- laden as any other animal.
A rattlesnake bite shold be considered a medical emergency and veterinary care should be sought as soon as possible. In the mean time the animal should be kept as quiet and inactive as possible. Attempts to remove the venom, as seen in old western movies, are futile. Placing a tourniquet can do much more harm than good.
Rattlesnake venom contains, among other things, digestive enzymes which normally begin the process of digesting the snake’s prey. In the case of a bitten dog, these digestive enzymes cause significant damage to skin, muscle and other tissues in the area, leading to swelling and wounds.
The venom also affects the proteins that help clot blood which, at times can be fatal to the animal bitten.
Veterinary care for your dog will include antibiotics, pain medications & other supportive measures, as well as blood tests to determine the severity of your dog’s reaction to the bite. In some cases antivenin is given in an attempt to couteract the reaction to the envenomation. Hospitalization may be necessary to provide continued monitoring and care.
There is a vaccine made for dogs (and horses) to try to help decrease the severity of the snake bite. The theory behind this vaccne is that previous exposure to the antigenic proteins in the venom will allow the dog’s body to recognize and destroy the venom before it can cause as much trouble. Unfortunately, there are many unanswered questions about the vaccine.
First- the rattlesnake vaccine is made using the venom of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). In the Santa Fe area Western Diamondbacks exist, but are encountered much less frequently than the Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). We don’t know how much venom differs from one species of snake to another and we don’t know how protective the vaccine is against bites by snake species other than the Western Diamondback.
Second- each bite incident is different. The severity of the bite will differ from incident to incident depending on the size and age of the snake, the accuracy of the bite (a glancing hit while the dog was running by vs. a deep, accurate face bite), when the snake last bite something and the location of the bite. These factors make it very difficult to assess the effectiveness of the vaccine in a bite incident.
Regardless of whether your dog has been vaccinated or not, veterinary attention should be sought to assess the dog’s reaction to the bite, to treat the infection and to help manage the pain. We hope that the treatment needed for a vaccinated dog will not be as intensive as a non-vaccinated dog, but we do not know that.
Rattlesnake avoidance training classes are offered by Natural Solutions Wildlife Enterprises.