Joan Merriam: ’Tis the season for … rattlesnakes
Even if you don’t pay attention to the local weather folks, we all know this winter has been especially wet and snowy. In fact, our Sierra is still blanketed in 106.5 inches of snow, with a snow-to-water equivalent that’s 200 percent of average.
We’re already seeing signs of an especially abundant spring as a result of all that wetness: masses of wildflowers everywhere, hillsides and meadows carpeted with lush grasses, scores of birds and butterflies in our skies, and a flourishing population of ladybugs crawling through the leaves.
That’s all good news, but it comes with an ominous warning: more insects, blooms, and butterflies create a delectable buffet for mice, rats, and gophers, which sets the table for hungry rattlesnakes just waking from a long winter hibernation.
Great for the snakes — but not so much for the unsuspecting homeowner or outdoor adventurer.
The months between April and September are prime rattlesnake season — and experts say that dogs are 20 times more likely to be bitten than humans are, and 25 times more likely to die as a result. Because our dogs investigate the world through their noses, bites on their faces are the most common, with leg-bites coming in at second place.
Knowing the habits of rattlers can reduce the likelihood of an encounter. Because snakes are cold-blooded creatures, cool mornings push them to find warm spots like rocks and asphalt driveways; during the heat of the day, they seek out shade and cooler ground. To avoid the hotter temps that come with spring and summer, they often limit their activities to dawn, dusk, and nighttime. Regardless of the temperature, you’re much more likely to find them hiding around rocks, brush, fallen logs, woodpiles, and in tall grasses and weeds.
Snakebite Myths and Truths
There are a lot of old legends about treating venomous snakebites in either humans or animals, none of them accurate: ice, tourniquets, and incision and suction are ineffective, and will only delay life-saving medical treatment. The most important thing to remember is that rattlesnake bites are extremely dangerous, and can result in your dog’s death unless he’s treated promptly. While bites on the face can be serious if swelling causes the throat to close, bites on the chest and abdomen are the most dangerous, because they’re closer to major organs.
Here’s a quick physiology lesson: venom from pit vipers like rattlesnakes is hemotoxic, meaning that it begins damaging blood vessels the instant it enters the bloodstream. This results in tissue destruction, severe swelling, blood loss, and internal hemorrhaging, leading to shock, unconsciousness, and death.
Some outward signs of snakebite are tremors and muscle contraction, excessive salivation, rapid and shallow breathing, dilated pupils, weakness or paralysis, and collapse. You may also notice bleeding at the site of the bite.
What to Do if Your Dog is Bitten
The most important thing to do if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake is get her to an emergency veterinarian immediately.
Call ahead if you can to make sure the they have antivenom available, as some practices don’t carry it. In the meantime, keep the dog as calm as possible, remove any restricting collars or harnesses before swelling begins, and try to immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
Time is crucial, as antivenom is most effective if administered within four to six hours. Medical treatment includes oxygen support, intravenous fluids, and steroids, along with anticonvulsants, antibiotics, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, and pain control medication. For the next 24-48 hours, the veterinary staff will want to closely observe your dog for any delayed effects from the venom.
In many rattlesnake-prone areas such as ours, some vets recommend your dog receive an annual rattlesnake vaccination. But the vaccine is not without controversy — not because it’s dangerous, but because studies about whether or not it provides any protection are scarce. A great deal depends upon the dog’s size, health, and the amount of venom that’s injected.
Regardless, don’t let vaccinating your dog lure you into a false sense of security. While it may buy some time to get your dog to the vet, even a vaccinated dog will still need lifesaving medical care.
Remember: even if your dog is vaccinated, you absolutely must get him to a veterinarian immediately.
Keeping You and Your Dog Safe
All that being said, don’t allow paranoia to take over: statistically, the chances of you or your dog being bitten by a rattlesnake bite are quite small. You can reduce those odds by keeping you and your dog as rattlesnake-safe as possible.
First, stay alert. Look and listen when you’re in areas where encounters are most likely, such as rockfalls, around fallen trees and logs, and in high grass.
Never wear open shoes or sandals when hiking.
On walks, make sure both you and your dog stick to the trail; if need be, keep him on a leash when in snake country .
If you do encounter a rattlesnake, secure your dog and stay at least ten feet away. Don’t attempt to use a stick to move the snake out of your way, as this will antagonize it into striking.
In short, be alert, stay safe, and have a wonderful (snake-free!) spring!
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.
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