2018 may just be the year of the rattlesnake. A recent study by a researcher (and emergency room physician) at Stanford University says October 2018 is poised to be one of the worst months for rattlesnake bites in recent memory.
Why All the Snakes?
The study was compiled from data collected over a 20 year period that ended in 2017. Basically, doctors noticed an uptick in rattlesnake bites in humans every so often so they dug in to figure out why. Turns out rattlesnakes are extra-active in the year following a particularly wet rainy season. 18 months after the wettest rains are when the most snake bites are reported in ERs. Why? Biologists think it's because the rains encourage new plant growth, grassy vegetation, and an explosion in the plant-eating rodent population. Snakes naturally come out in full-force to eat said rodents. If you remember, spring 2017 was one of the wettest seasons in California's history. In a four month period some parts of the state saw upwards of 15+ inches of rain. October 2018 is exactly a year-and-a-half later and doctors are expecting up to 4% more new snake bite cases this year than last year. The parts of California that report the most snake bites include Mariposa County, Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County, and San Mateo County.
What Can Dog Owners Do?
The simplest and easiest way to keep your dog from being bitten by a rattlesnake is to avoid rattlesnakes. (Duh.) That's harder than it seems, though! Over 85% of bites reported in the study took place only yards from the victim's house. Skipping long hikes through the woods isn't enough - you have to be vigilant during snake season (April-October) and at all times. It's important to keep your yard clear of debris that might attract nesting snakes. Large wood piles, leafy built up, and discarded toys and appliances make great homes for snakes, as does ankle-high or higher grass. Your curious dog probably won't resist checking out a strange slithery noise in his territory if he hears it so it's up to you to keep snakes out in the first place. Of course, if you're out in nature with your dog you should stick to cleared paths where visibility is greatest, bring a stick to swing at tall brush before you step through it, and always take care to make as much noise as possible to startle away snakes. Snakes bite when they feel threatened so the earlier they see you the more likely they'll be to hide for their own safety. You should always keep your dog on a leash while hiking so you can control whether or not he beats you to a snake!
Wear pants and tall boots while walking in particularly snake-prone areas
Make lots of noise and watch the ground while you walk
Step ON logs and rocks, not over them; a snake might be curled up on the other side
If you live in an area where rattlesnakes are common, talk to your vet about the rattlesnake vaccine for dogs. It's effective against the most common species of venomous snake in the U.S., comes in two doses (given 30 days apart), and lasts for about a year. Remember that the vaccine won't make your dog immune to rattlesnake venom, but instead makes his reaction less severe if a bite should occur. When weighing the pros and cons of having your dog vaccinated, keep in mind that just one round of antivenom (which is not guaranteed to save a dog's life after a snakebite!) can cost upwards of $1,000.
If You and Your Dog Encounter a Snake
If you and your dog see a snake (rattlesnake or not!) in your yard or anywhere else, keep at least two "snake-lengths" away - snake strikes are powerful and fast. Don't attempt to walk around the snake or use a stick or other article to move the snake out of your way...the snake will become aggressive and might feel threatened enough to bite. It's always safest to turn back and walk the long way. It's worth noting here that in the Stanford study, men were bitten more than women by a 3:1 margin. Why? We're quoting the study's author here, "[Men] do stupid things. Women run away." If you and/or your dog see a snake, do what a woman would do: run away. Come across a dead snake? Snakes are cool, yes, but you should resist the urge to poke and prod it. For one, it might not be completely dead - you don't want to find that out the hard way. Secondly, even dead snakes can still inject venom for several hours after they die. Do NOT let your dog sniff or inspect a "dead" snake...this is another good reason to keep your dog on a leash.
What to do If Your Dog is Bitten by a Rattlesnake
Stay calm but act quickly to get him into the car and on the way to the vet as soon as possible. If your dog is still near the snake, do NOT try to scare or swat the snake away...you could be bitten yourself. You're better off calling your dog to you and evacuating the area immediately. Use your phone to call the closest emergency vet and tell them you're on your way; seconds matter. Depending on where they bite was, remove anything that might restrict swelling, like your dog's collar. In fact, do NOT apply a tourniquet of any kind! This won't stop the venom from spreading and will just make it more difficult for the wound to clot. And this is important...do NOT try to "suck" the venom out of the wound. Once it's in there, it's in there, and you may just end up ingesting venom yourself (as well as wasting precious time.) The best thing you can do for your dog on the way to the emergency vet is to keep the bite lower than his heart to help keep the venom away from his vital organs, make him as comfortable as possible, and try to stay calm.
Questions about how you can keep your dog safe from rattlesnake bites? Talk to your vet. They can provide tips and tricks for keeping your dog safe in the exact area where you live and also about your options for vaccination.