Rattlesnake Awareness, Safety, and Vaccinations for Your Pet

Southern California has many great sites for owners to hike with their dogs, but the threat of rattlesnakes makes hitting the trail a potentially risky venture.

One wrong turn or sniff of a bush could create a life-threatening situation for your pet

I want my patients to never experience the pain or possible death associated with rattlesnake bites, so awareness, safety precautions, and vaccination are among my top strategies.

Rattlesnake Awareness

During the hotter months of the spring through fall, snakes more commonly leave their dens to seek heat and sun and pose life-threatening danger for both pets and people.  According to California Poison Control Center, most (snake) bites occur between the months of April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors.”

Fortunately, many of the hiking trails around Los Angeles have warning signs posted to inform hikers of the dangers associated with rattlesnakes.  Especially when hiking with one’s canine companion, the utmost of attention must be paid to avoid snakes and other injury-causing creatures (scorpions, bee swarms, etc.).

On hiking trails, there can be many sources of stimuli to attract our attention, including managing our dogs, staying hydrated, fixing our sun-protective outfits, changing one’s podcast, checking out the other hikers, and more.  As a result, we may not always be looking ahead and down.

In my experience, snakes may meander across your trail or can lay coiled in waiting to strike.  I recently saw my first rattler of the season while hiking Franklin Canyon Park.  It was around 7 PM and the sun was no longer scorching the path, but a coiled up snake lay in waiting at the side of the trail under some thin brush.  I was very much on the lookout, so I saw it in plenty of time.  Upon first glance, I thought I was seeing a dried up plop of soft dog poop.  As I got closer I recognized the characteristic pattern and approached no further.

In attempt to scare the snake away from the path’s edge and potentially protect other hikers and dogs I kicked dirt at it, which caused it to immediately lunge in my direction but come nowhere near me.  After a few more attempts to make the snake flee by kicking dirt I decided to not agitate it further and spent the remainder of my hike warning whomever I saw of the danger lurking ahead.

Rattlesnake Safety Precautions

The best medicine is prevention when it comes to rattlesnake bites.  The California Poison Control Center reports that “rattlesnakes account for more than 800 (snake) bites each year with one to two deaths.”

Here are my top rattlesnake safety recommendations for clients who hike with their canine companions:

  • Keep dogs on a short, flat (non-extendable) lead during hikes. This way your dog stays at a heel by your side instead of bounding through the brush and potentially encountering a snake or incurring other injuries.
  • Walk in the center of the trail instead of at the periphery where you’ll be more likely to come across a snake laying in waiting.
  • Frequently look ahead and down to spot a snakes that may cross your trail or lurk at the trail’s edges.
  • Carry a long and sturdy stick or some other device that could function as a weapon to deter a snake’s approach.
  • Don’t provoke a snake by getting in close proximity for a better look or a photo. When a snake feels crowded or provoked it will be more likely to strike.  I recognize that I provoked the rattlesnake by kicking dirt its way, but I was at a sufficiently safe distance and didn’t further try to make it flee after my failed initial attempt.
  • Be extra vigilant about rattlesnake safety during warmer seasons and hotter times of the day.
  • Consult with your veterinarian about providing a rattlesnake vaccination for your pooch.

Rattlesnake Vaccination

Until I moved to Los Angeles, I had minimal awareness of rattlesnake vaccination.  Now I’m well versed about this potentially-lifesaving preventative medicine tool.  Rattlesnake bites require emergency veterinary care, but vaccination can buy you some time to get to a hospital to pursue evaluation and treatment.

Upon biting, rattlesnakes release their venom into the victim’s tissues.  According to Veterinary Partner “approximately 20-25% of bites are dry, meaning no venom has been injected; 30% of bites are mild meaning they cause local pain and swelling in the bite area and no systemic symptoms; 40% of bites are severe with approximately 5% being fatal.”

Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, meaning it damages blood vessels and causes severe swelling at and around the bite site.  Veterinary Partner reports that the venom can cause “up to one-third of the total blood circulation being lost into the tissues in a matter of hours.”  Hypotension (low blood pressure) associated with lack of blood circulation causes reduced delivery of nutrients and oxygen to tissues and rapid necrosis (tissue death).

The toxin also disrupts the blood clotting cascade and causes uncontrolled bleeding into the skin, body cavities, and other tissue.  Bites on the face or neck tend to be more concerning than those around the limbs as the swelling can affect air flow through the trachea (windpipe) and oxygen delivery to the lungs.

Generally, we vaccinate our pets to prevent infection with disease, so the use of a rattlesnake vaccination doesn’t intuitively fit into that principle/philosophy.  Rattlesnake vaccination reduces the severe inflammatory response associated with rattlesnake bites, reduces swelling and pain, increases the likelihood your pet will survive, potentially shortens the hospitalization time needed for treatment, and may decrease the cost of your pet’s treatment.

Typically, days of treatment are needed including antivenin, intravenous (IV) fluids, pain medications, antibiotics, and other therapies (oxygen, wound care, surgery, etc.) along with repeat diagnostics (blood and urine testing, x-rays, blood pressure monitoring, etc.) to assess organ function.  It’s a significant undertaking that can cost thousands of dollars and even if a pet survives irreversible damage can occur.

I give my canine patients Red Rock Biologics Crotalus Atrox Toxoid (CAT) vaccination.  The first dose is administered and followed up by a booster in 30 days.  CAT is given annually provided a pet is still exposed to rattlesnakes and is healthy enough to be vaccinated.  Although the immunity can last for up to 12 months, some dogs (hunting, search and rescue, etc.) may require more frequent vaccination depending on their degree of exposure to rattlesnakes.  I generally recommended giving CAT at the beginning of spring, as four to six weeks are needed to produce a maximum antibody response.

CAT isn’t labeled for use in our feline friends, but if your cat is at high-risk for exposure your veterinarian may be willing to provide the immunization.

The only side effects I’ve seen my patients experience are mild to moderate swelling at the vaccination site which occurs within the first few days of administration.  I consulted with Red Rock Biologics about strategies to reduce this side effect and have found success in giving the injection in parts of the body where there is a thicker fat layer (between the shoulder blades instead of at the level of the left hip, which is the common injection site) and applying a warm compress for 10 minutes every 8-12 hours for the 48 hours post-vaccination.

Anti-inflammatory drugs (steroidal or non-steroidal) also may be beneficial to reduce swelling and should be used under your veterinarians’ guidance.  Although antihistamines can help reduce the potential for a pet to have a hypersensitivity (“allergic”) response to a vaccination, they likely won’t reduce swelling that’s seen at the rattlesnake vaccination site so I don’t generally recommend their use.  Yet, doing so isn’t likely to be harmful if the antihistamine is appropriately administered.

Besides my above suggestions, California Department of Fish and Wildlife features many helpful tips for humans here: Rattlesnakes in California.  I hope you and your pooch have many safe and fun hiking adventures lacking altercations with rattlesnakes and other predators.

Has your pet been bitten by a rattlesnake or has your dog received the rattlesnake vaccination?  Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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