Safety tips for you and your pet
By Carl Person and Karen Singleton
Photo: California Fish & Game Dept.
July 9, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) --With the arrival of warm weather, we love to be outdoors and take our pets with us to explore and enjoy the beauties of nature. Trails and parks abound in southern California and offer a wide array of different habitats, from low deserts to high Alpine pine forests. Daily, people and their pet companions converge on these sites by the droves. The exhilaration of being in these pristine outdoor environments often makes us forget that, within these treasured getaways, there is a potential for disaster.
Rattlesnakes also come out in the spring to begin their endless search for food. In southern California, there are six species of rattlesnakes: The Southern Pacific, Red Diamond, Mojave, Southwestern Speckled, Sidewinder, and Western Diamondback.
Rattlesnakes, though on the food list of many predators themselves, are an almost perfectly designed hunter. Rattlesnakes are a pit-viper, and as such, have a highly sensitive infrared-sensing pit between the eye and the nostril. This organ gives the snake a three-dimensional infrared image of its surroundings, and gives them the ability to “see” very well at night—even in the forest under the darkest of conditions. It’s a huge advantage if you’re hunting warm-blooded prey. Pit-vipers also have very long fangs that are folded up against the roof of their mouth which, when biting, are rotated 90 degrees forward, delivers a large amount of venom deep into their victim. The venom is a great advantage to the snake; when they bite, they release their prey immediately, preventing the snake from being scratched, bitten, or otherwise harmed from their own food source. The venom also provides a tracking tag. The long, forked tongue that snakes “flick” in and out is part of an extremely sensitive chemosensory system by which the snake can track the scent of its own venom. The venom is designed to first, immobilize the prey, and then kill it; venom is primarily a way of getting food—defense is secondary.
The venom of rattlesnakes varies from species to species and even between different populations of the same species. A good example of this is the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake. Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes are found from the low desert areas in the eastern Coachella Valley to mountain habitats above 10,000 feet; they can also be found on beaches, low rolling hills and Santa Catalina Island. Because they exploit such a wide variety of habitats, their prey items also vary widely, influencing the venom diversity in this species. On Mt. San Jacinto, the population has a powerful presynaptic neurotoxin, while at the base of the mountain; the snakes lack this element but, have a really rich mixture of small myotoxins.
Avoiding snake-bite is on the minds of many as they plan their retreats in rattlesnake country. There are some measures that you can take to reduce your risk. The first thing to keep in mind is that the snake wants nothing to do with you; it hopes to avoid you as much, if not more than you do! With this in mind, if you see a snake, take two steps back, and you will be out of striking range and safe. If you here a rattlesnake, stop, locate the animal, then back away. Be sure to stay on the open trails and, if crossing over a rock or log, step on top of it first, and check on the other side. Avoid putting your hands into areas where you cannot see what’s there. A good set of hiking boots and long pants are also a help, though their fangs can penetrate both, it will help reduce the amount of venom delivered.
If you or your pet do get bitten, it is important to remember a few things:
- DO NOT panic! There is typically plenty of time to get to a hospital or veterinarian. Adults and medium to large dogs will usually have enough time to get treatment started; however, for children and small dogs time is limited.
- DO NOT try to capture / kill the snake for identification. In California, the antivenom available covers all rattlesnakes.
- DO NOT use tourniquets, ice, cutting or any of the commonly marketed “Snake Bite Kits”! These actions will make things much worse for you or your pet! Dialing 911 is the only thing you should do for a bite to a human!
- Antivenom is the only treatment that works. Even if your pet has received the rattlesnake vaccine, they must have emergency treatment!
- DO NOT attempt to drive yourself – there is a high risk of passing out due to a drop in blood pressure!
- Remove any jewelry near the bitten area; as the swelling begins, these items become a restriction device that can lead to the loss of a finger or perhaps, your hand.
- Remain still while waiting for an ambulance. If your dog has been bitten, and you can carry your pet to your car, that is best.
- Keep the bite sight at heart level if possible. However, the majority of bites that dogs receive are on the face while investigating the snake! This type of bite will adversely affect the dog’s ability to breathe, so the immediate administration of Benadryl and professional medical attention are needed.
- Benadryl will help reduce inflammation and help reduce the risk of an allergic reaction (recommended dosage for dogs is 1mg/lb. – consult with your veterinarian).
- Limit liquid intake because the body pumps fluids to the bite site, increasing painful swelling. If available, chew on ice to relieve thirst. Avoid alcohol, it increases metabolism and thins your blood as does the venom.
I am often asked if the rattlesnake vaccine that is offered for horses and dogs will help. The simple fact is that if it helps, it is very minimal, and not at all after thirty days. The vaccine is made only with Western Diamondback venom which has a very different venom profile than most of the other species. Simply, if vaccines would work the way we wished for snake-bite, there would be no need for antivenom. The best method for preventing disaster is to have your dog trained to avoid the snakes in the first place! Not only are they very quick to learn this behavior, they also become your personal early warning system!
Carl Person has worked with venomous snakes since 1979. He has a B.S. in Biology, and is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Loma Linda University on rattlesnake biology and behavior. He also works with Karen Singleton teaching dogs to avoid rattlesnakes. Karen Singleton is an Animal Behaviorist, and has been training animals, especially dogs, since 1977. Together, they have developed a scientifically designed training course to make sure dogs are given the best available Rattlesnake Avoidance Training System. Please see SnakeSmarts.com for more information and clinic locations.