DO RATTLESNAKE VACCINES FOR DOGS REALLY WORK?

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By Miriam Raftery

Photo: Mojave rattlesnake

June 28, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) – The canine rattlesnake vaccine has been administered to over 100,000 dogs since it came on the market in the early 2000s. While only about 1 percent of dogs had side effects, the bad news is “there remains little fact-based data to support the efficacy of the vaccine to date,” according to Valerie Wiebe, Pharm.D with the University of California, Davis. In other words, it’s not clear if the vaccine actually works.

Wiebe reviewed data through 2010. The most common side effects were minor, such as abscesses that cleared up.  Flu-like symptoms occurred in one of every 3,000 vaccines, though severe anaphylactic allergic reactions occurred rarely, in one of every 250,000 dogs vaccinated.

The shots require frequent boosters every four to six months, so costs add up. That could be a worthwhile investment if it protects your pet from a potentially deadly snakebite.

But even with the vaccine, if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, you should still seek emergency treatment.  Costly antivenom treatments are recommended even for dogs that have been vaccinated. 

Why?  First, the vaccine doesn’t protect against every species of rattlesnake.  The venom from Mojave rattlers, for example, is not covered by the vaccine. Second, even if the species in one purported to be covered by the vaccine, antibody titers may be overwhelmed in the case of a severe bite with lots of venom. Third, an individual dog may lack protection depending on response to the vaccine and time elapsed since the last vaccine.

The UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital does not recommend the vaccine for animals that it treats, “due to the vaccine’s questionable efficacy, cost, and lack of substantial difference in acute therapy if an animal is bitten.”

So, is the vaccine ever advisable?

Yes, if you live in a high-risk area where snakebite is a significant risk and where emergency treatment may be substantially delayed. A vaccine may reduce the severity of a dog’s reaction to a snakebite and may buy precious time for your dog before emergency care can be obtained, UC Davis advises.

So, what other options are there, if you don’t live in, or regularly frequent remote areas with your dog?

  • Snake-aversion classes can help dogs learn to avoid rattlesnakes. 
  • Putting a tight wire mesh at the bottom of fences and gates can prevent snakes from entering your backyard. When hiking, keep your dog on a leash, on the trail – and don’t allow your pet to run through tall weeds where you can’t see what lies ahead.
  • Don’t keep open woodpiles or other hiding places attractive to snakes in areas that your dog can access.
  • If your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, seek emergency veterinary care immediately.