Where do you find venomous snakes?
Think these slithery dangers don’t exist in your neck of the woods? Think again! There are 20 species of venomous snakes in North America and they are found in every state except Alaska, Hawaii and Maine. There are two families of venomous snakes in the US: the Crotalidae family (pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, copperhead, and water moccasins) and the Elapidae family (coral snakes). Since the majority of bites are due to rattlesnakes, I will focus primarily on them in this blog.
There are 32 species of rattlesnakes that range from southern Canada to Argentina and 16 species live in the US (Eastern Diamondback, Western Diamondback, Sidewinder, Lower California, Timber, Rock, Speckled, Blacktail, Twin-spotted, Red Diamond, Mojave, Tiger, Western, Ridgenose, Massasauga, and Pigmy rattlesnake). Rattlesnakes come in a variety of colors such as tan, brown, gray, black, red, green and even white. While found all over the US (except HI, Maine and AK), they are most concentrated in the Southwestern United State. They can be found in many different habitats such as deserts, mountain ranges, forests, prairies, and even along the coast. Rattlesnakes can be around all year but are most commonly encountered during the warmer months and usually hibernate in the fall and winter.
Snakes bite when they feel threatened. A common scenario occurs when your dog encounters and startles a snake on a trail. A rattlesnake can bite your dog even if the meeting is not face-to-face. Rattlesnakes can strike as far as half of their own body length. Although they usually warn before striking by rattling their tail, rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike. Rattlesnakes can also control how much venom they release. They release more venom when threatened than when they strike offensively to warn. The severity of the bite depends on the amount of venom injected, the location of the bite, size of the victim, rate of venom uptake and time before treatment is initiated.
Snake venom contains a mixture of enzymes and peptides that cause a number of different signs and symptoms in pets. Dogs are typically bitten on the head and face while cats are often bitten on the legs, paws or body. Initial signs and symptoms are pain, rapid swelling, and the presence of fang marks. It is important to note that fang marks may or may not be seen depending on the extent of swelling and also whether they are covered with hair. Within 1-3 hours pets may also become depressed, febrile, vomit, have trouble breathing, have low blood pressure, have a rapid heart rate, and develop bruising around the bit mark and bleeding problems.
Rattlesnake bites can be fatal without treatment. Left untreated they lead to circulatory collapse, bleeding disorders and death. The sooner treatment is initiated the better the prognosis. If you think your pet was bitten, take them to the vet immediately. Do not wait for signs to appear before seeking veterinary help.
Venomous snakebites are emergencies. If a rattlesnake bites your pet take them to a veterinary clinic immediately. If possible, call your veterinarian to ensure they have anti-venom available. If not, they may suggest that you go to a veterinary emergency clinic instead. If the snakebite occurs after hours take your pet to a veterinary emergency clinic immediately. Treatment for a rattlesnake bite typically involves administration of intravenous fluids to improve blood pressure, pain medications, wound cleaning and most importantly anti-venom to neutralize the venom.
Now that you’re terrified about rattlesnake bites, what should you do? Should you keep your dogs inside all summer? No! Just be sure to take these measures to lower your pet’s risk of encountering a rattlesnake.
- Get rid of their food source. If you have rodents around your home, yard or garage, they could be attracting snakes.
- Get rid of their hiding places. Clean up overgrown foliage and woodpiles where snakes like to hide.
- When hiking, keep your dogs on leash. This way if you encounter a snake you can pull your dog away from the snake quickly.
- While hiking, keep your dog out of brush, tall weeds or grass. The safest thing is to keep your dog on a leash. (better for the environment too)
- If you have encountered snakes in your yard before, always check your yard before letting your pets outside.
- If you live in a rattlesnake dense area consider signing your dog up for a rattlesnake avoidance class. These classes try to teach your dog to avoid snakes.
- If you live in rattlesnake territory, ask your veterinarian if they have anti-venom in clinic. If they don't, you will at least know ahead of time to take your pet directly to a veterinary emergency clinic if they are bitten by a rattlesnake.
- Protecting cats from poisonous snakes is easy: just keep them indoors!
Remember, if your pet is bitten by a rattlesnake, do not apply a tourniquet, ice packs or heat, or attempt to suck the venom out. Instead take your pet to the veterinarian immediately. Rattlesnake bites in pets are serious and can be fatal if untreated so seek veterinary assistance immediately.