Protecting Pets from Rattlesnakes

I was recently getting my van’s oil changed where I was conversing with a nice lady who had two Shih Tzus. She apologized that one of them was still learning her manners as she was just a puppy. And then she teared up saying that she’d lost her last Shih Tzu due to a rattlesnake bite at one of the local parks.

Yesterday, I heard that the neighbor’s cat had been playing with a tiny snake in her garage. The way the snake was coiling and striking, she didn’t think it was the regular garden variety. If it were a king snake, she wanted to let it live, because they are good at controlling rodents and other pests.

But baby rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because they don’t control the amount of venom they inject, are equipped with more toxic venom to better aid in digestion, are more likely to bite than adult snakes (to make up for their small size and improve survival rates), and they don’t have the telltale rattler to help identify them. Conversely, adult rattlers may only deliver a small amount of venom, sometimes even delivering a dry bite. All rattlesnake bites should be taken seriously, however.

How to Identify a Rattlesnake

The most identifiable features of rattlesnakes are the triangular shaped head that is much broader than the neck. Research the kinds of rattlesnakes (or other venomous snakes) in your area, if any, and be familiar with their markings. The baby rattlers have the same markings as adults. Rattlesnakes have vertical slits for pupils instead of round ones. Baby rattlers only have a button that doesn’t make sound. Their tails appears to be misshapen instead of coming to a nice tapered end like other nonvenomous varieties.

An adult prairie rattlesnake with a juvenile. The head shape isn’t clear from this angle, but the rattle tails are unmistakable! Photo by Jared Tarbell

Note the triangular shaped head and the vertical slit pupils. Photo by Don DeBold.

Protecting Your Pet

Keep your pet on trails where you can see the path in front of you. Avoid tall grassy areas and dense shrubs where snakes may be hiding, especially around streams and riverbeds. Always keep a veterinary hospital’s phone number with you that is located close to the area you are hiking.

Rattlesnakes typically only bite when provoked and, unfortunately, your dog is probably jus the one to make the snake feel unsafe; therefore, if you are in an area that’s known to have rattlesnakes in the area, keep your pet on a short, nonretractable leash. If you should encounter a snake, keep your distance (at least 10 feet to minimize vibrations the snake can sense) with your dog close to you. Walk away slowly. Rattlesnakes have a striking distance of approximately 2/3 of their bodies length. So a 3-foot snake could strike about 2 feet.

Apparently there are snake bite vaccinations designed for high-risk areas, though it is debatable as to whether they are effective. Talk to your vet about the pros and cons of vaccinating your cat or dog. This is different than the antivenin formulations that are injected once a pet is bitten. A more effective preventative are Rattlesnake Avoidance Classes that train dogs to stay away from snakes. There are also snake-proof fencing options for yards.

Treating a Bite

In human and pet bites, keep the bitten area below the heart if possible. Remain calm and keep your pet still during transport to the nearest veterinary clinic. Do not apply a tourniquet. Antivenin shots are very expensive at around $800 apiece, and two are often recommended. If this is out of your league, or the antivenin is not available, supportive care with IV hydration and antibiotics can sometimes be enough to get your pet through.

Do you have any experiences with pets encountering venomous snakes? Advice?

Natural Snake Area photo courtesy of Rich Anderson.

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