Rattlesnake Safety for Dogs


From spring through fall, or whenever the weather is temperate and kind, rattlesnake bites are a potential threat to your dog. Rattlesnakes are classified as pit vipers, so named for the recessed heat-sensing organs between the eye and nostril on either side of the head. Rattlesnakes and other pit vipers prefer to move under cover, making them common in forests, rocky areas, tall grasses, and along shorelines.

If your dog is anything like mine, she’s relentlessly curious. During those times of year when rattlesnakes are not hibernating, a heedless misstep can turn into a snakebite emergency. Let’s examine the risk factors for rattlesnake bites, what to do in the event of a snake biting your dog, and ways to minimize your dog’s risk.

Juvenile Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) by Shutterstock.
Juvenile Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) by Shutterstock.

Rattlesnakes can live anywhere

Rattlesnakes and other pit vipers live everywhere in the Americas, from Canada to Argentina. The most significant thing you can do is to familiarize yourself with those particular species of venomous snakes endemic to your state and your region. In the event that your dog is bitten by a venomous snake, your ability to identify it by color or pattern can make a huge difference to the speed of your dog’s recovery.

What makes a rattlesnake bite dangerous? Rattlesnake venom contains hemotoxins that break down red blood cells and inhibit clotting. The longer venom circulates in the blood, the more damage it can do to organs and vital systems. Typical rattlesnake prey — small animals and birds — are usually small enough that a single bite is lethal. This means that small dogs are at special risk, although snakebites in large dogs can still inflict major pain and suffering.

Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) by Shutterstock.
Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) by Shutterstock.

While rattlesnakes are recognizable by the sound of their rattles shaken in defensive posture, don’t count on snakes to give you fair warning. Crossing a rattlesnake’s path too closely will give it cause to strike. Time of day makes little difference; as long as the weather is nice enough, you should be observant and cautious, especially out in nature.

Snakebite symptoms and treatment

The best-case scenario for a snake biting your dog is that you are present and can identify the offending snake. Under no circumstances should you pursue, nor allow your dog to engage, any kind of venomous snake. If your dog has been bitten by a snake, the most obvious symptoms will be bleeding and swelling at the site of the bite wound. In time, a dog bitten by a rattlesnake will become weak and have trouble breathing.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake by Shutterstock.
Southern Pacific Rattlesnake by Shutterstock.

Severity of symptoms varies widely based on a number of factors, including the size of the dog and the severity of the bite. If you know your dog has suffered a rattlesnake bite, your best approach is to stay calm and seek immediate veterinary attention. Do not attempt to treat the dog yourself, nor try any of the things you see in movies. Don’t try to suck out the venom and don’t apply ice to the wound.

There are antivenins to treat snakebites in dogs, but they are expensive and tend to be most useful when administered shortly after a snakebite and in cases when the snake can be identified. Venom is snake-specific, as are antivenins. Veterinarians’ most common course of treatment for rattlesnake bites in dogs involves intravenous fluid drips, pain medications, and antihistamines. The rest is a matter of time as swelling and pain recede.

Rattlesnakes are not the only venomous snakes. This Copperhead appeared on my porch in July 2011.
Rattlesnakes are not the only venomous snakes. This Copperhead appeared on my porch in July 2011.

Rattlesnake vaccine is unreliable

A rattlesnake vaccine exists, but every source that mentions it also mentions its unreliability. This is due to the rattlesnake vaccine being geared toward the Western rattlesnake, which itself is vague, since there are several species that fit that description. Just as antivenins are species-specific, the source of the vaccine means that, at best, a rattlesnake vaccine can only delay the effects of any other snake’s bite. Even then, the vaccine requires a yearly or biannual booster.

Preventing snakebites in dogs

Unless you have a hunting dog and spend significant time in wilderness settings, the cost of vaccination far outstrips its effectiveness. So how can you prevent your dog from falling victim to a rattlesnake bite? There are many things you can do, both at home, and out on walks, to protect yourself and your dog from venomous snakebites. The most critical is to familiarize yourself with your native snake populations.

Snake bite! Snake and man's hand shortly after being bitten by Shutterstock.
Snake bite! Snake and man’s hand shortly after being bitten by Shutterstock.

When you walk your dog, stick to marked and well-delineated trails and paths. Keep your dog on his leash and do not permit the dog to wander off where the ground is obscured, either by rocks, tall grasses, or heavy brush. These are spots where snakes stalk prey and find cover from their own predators. Should you see a snake, walk your dog in the opposite direction.

At home, keep your yard, driveway, and any commonly used walkways as clear as possible. This means keeping lawns mowed and paths free from leaves, pine needles, and any other clutter. All of these provide easy cover for rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes. Since snake prey includes small animals and birds, keep any feeders you may have well away from common paths that you or your dog utilize.

A Mojave or Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) by Shutterstock.
A Mojave or Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) by Shutterstock.

Knowledge and avoidance are key

Educate yourself and maintain control of your dog when you are outside the home. Contact your local cooperative extension office, ask your local park ranger, or search the Internet for information on snakes that live in your area. If your dog is bitten by a snake, any details you can provide will help your veterinarian determine a precise course of treatment.

Has your dog ever been bitten by a snake? How did you deal with the emergency? Share your experiences with dogs and snakebites in the comments!

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