Imagine it’s a sunny spring day and you are walking your two dogs in the desert. They are off-leash and loving life, jumping and chasing each other up and down the trail.
Suddenly, they stop. It looks like they found an interesting bush. Then, there’s a yelp. You run up to see what’s the matter. One of your dogs is tossing his head back and forth. He’s whimpering and pawing at his muzzle. Then you hear it. Your stomach drops. From the bush: a rattle. Now what?
What to do (and not do) if your dog gets bitten by a rattlesnake
If your dog gets bitten by a rattlesnake, the first step is to take a deep breath. While this is indeed a medical emergency, staying calm and taking time to make a plan will be in the best interest of your pet.
Do NOT do any of the following if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake:
Do NOT apply a tourniquet - This will cut off the blood supply to your dog’s leg and kill healthy tissue.
Do NOT open the wounds and suck out the venom - Put down the knife, Crocodile Dundee! This isn’t a movie, and that doesn’t work.
Do NOT apply ice or heat - Sorry, that doesn’t help either.
Do NOT “wait and see” - This is a medical emergency. It’s good to be calm, but don’t wait to see how things look in the morning.
Do NOT run - Walk. Exertion and panic will speed the spread of venom throughout the body and make things worse faster. Your dog will react to how you react. If you stay calm, your dog is more likely to stay calm too. If your dog is small enough, pick him or her up and carry him or her to the car.
In short, the best thing to do for your dog is to walk to your car, load up, and drive to the nearest veterinary hospital.
What we (the vets) do
Rattlesnake bites come in a wide range of severities, and every patient must be assessed individually. Heart rate, pulse quality, gum color, swelling, overall demeanor, and signs of abnormal bleeding are taken into account.
After the exam, bite wounds are shaved, thoroughly cleaned, and swelling margins are noted. Frequently, IV fluids are delivered, along with pain medication, antibiotics, and antivenom.
The amount of antivenom required depends on the severity of the case. Patients must be monitored closely as antivenom is delivered, because allergic reactions to antivenom are possible.
In severe cases, blood transfusions may be required.
Patients are typically hospitalized for at least 24 hours for supportive care and monitoring.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Why do rattlesnakes bite dogs?
While rattlesnakes have a bad reputation for being aggressive and venomous, they are not actually out there hunting dogs. The rattlesnake’s namesake rattle serves as a warning. It says, “stay away” to any possible predator. Unfortunately, many dogs don’t get the message. They hear a rattle, or see a snake, then go nose-first to investigate, which explains why most dogs get bitten on the face or the forelimbs.
In most instances, dogs are off-leash when they get bitten by a rattlesnake. Dogs that are in groups exhibit a pack mentality and are more likely to investigate a snake due to increased confidence. Ideally, keep your dogs leashed if you are in snake territory. If your dogs are off-leash, they should stay close and come when called.
What does rattlesnake venom do?
Rattlesnake venom damages red blood cells and interferes with normal blood clotting. This causes local damage at the site of the bite, and can lead to body-wide issues with abnormal bleeding and shock.
Along with these problems, some rattlesnake venom can also affect the nervous system.
Why are some bites worse than others?
The severity of a rattlesnake bite is influenced by the type of rattlesnake, the amount of time since the bite, the size of the dog, how active the dog is after the bite, and the amount of venom delivered. (And probably other factors.)
The amount of venom delivered by a bite varies by the size of the snake, how threatened the snake feels, and when the snake last ate.
Despite the common myth that baby rattlesnakes are more deadly than adults, this is not entirely true. Young snakes may deliver more venom than needed because they are less experienced, but they also have less possible venom volume than adult snakes.
“Dry bites” are a known phenomenon where no venom is delivered, but it isn’t worth the risk waiting to find out if your dog is lucky or not. (Dogs named Lucky should definitely not wait to find out if they live up to their names.)
My dog received a rattlesnake vaccine. If he gets bitten, does he still need to see a vet?
Yes. Even if your dog has been vaccinated, you must seek veterinary care immediately after a snakebite. The vaccine may buy some time, but it does not completely protect your dog.
Due to ethical reasons, there are currently no studies testing the efficacy of the rattlesnake vaccine in dogs. However, at least one study in mice shows that vaccinated mice live longer than unvaccinated mice after being bitten by certain rattlesnakes.