Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads, oh my: Encounters between dogs and venomous snakes can be dangerous. Luckily, like some insect stings, they are not always lethal. Stack the odds in your dog’s favor by equipping yourself with the right knowledge and him with the right training—and maybe even a rattlesnake vaccine.
Where Do Snakes Live?
If you hunt or hike with your dog, odds are good that you do it where snakes live. Snakes make their homes in brush, woodpiles, and rivers throughout the United States. Four species of venomous snakes live in the United States: coral snakes and three types of pit vipers. Only one of the contiguous states—Maine—is home to none. (Alaska and Hawaii have none, either.) The risk of a bite is highest in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, or Texas.
Coral snakes account for few bites per year; this species is reclusive and lives only along the southern edges of the United States. The pit vipers—rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads—are found throughout the U.S. This country’s four species of rattlesnakes account for the majority of venomous snake bites in dogs.
Facts About Rattlesnake Bites on Dogs
- Rattlesnake bites are potentially lethal.
- Bites to the body carry a worse prognosis than bites to the legs, feet, or face.
- Rattlesnakes can strike from a coiled or extended position.
- Rattlesnakes may strike without rattling first.
- More than 20 percent of rattlesnake bites are ‘dry bites,’ in which the snake does not inject venom. Dry bites are not lethal.
- Bites that inject venom must be treated with rattlesnake antivenin.
Luckily, rattlesnakes aren’t typically aggressive—they won’t go slithering after your dog, looking for a fight. Dogs who get bitten usually either happen upon a rattlesnake or intentionally investigate it out of curiosity or prey drive. The ‘investigators’ tend to get a bite on the feet or face as they paw, snuffle at, or try to grab the snake. Dogs who pass over a rattlesnake unintentionally may be bitten on the body.
Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms on a Dog
If you were close enough to hear the rattle and see the strike, there’s little doubt about what happened. But if your dog was at a distance, you might not know. Here are symptoms that indicate you may be dealing with a rattlesnake bite:
- Sudden weakness and collapse, followed by getting up normally
- Swelling that begins suddenly
- Swelling that discolors the skin
- Swelling that is painful to your dog (he pulls away or reacts defensively when you gently investigate the area—use caution)
- Swelling that oozes bloody fluid
- Muscle twitching, trembling, or shaking
What to Do If Your Dog Is Bitten by a Snake
Short answer: Head for the vet.
Long answer: First, if necessary, get your dog away from the snake without approaching the snake yourself. If you can see the snake and can do so safely, take its picture. Otherwise, describe it out loud to yourself as you look at it. This will help with identification. Do not try to catch or kill the snake.
Next, call the vet. If your dog has been bitten by a garter snake or other nonvenomous snake, he may still need to come in for wound treatment. If he has been bitten by a venomous snake, you are dealing with a true veterinary emergency, and time is precious. Let the office know you’re coming so they can be ready.
Don’t apply ice or a tourniquet to the wound. Do not cut the wound or try to suck out the venom. Sure, there is a cowboy appeal to sucking the venom out of a snakebite, but research shows that these at-home treatments are not that effective and might actually cause harm. Focus on getting him to the vet without wasting time.
Do try to keep him calm and limit his movement. Carry him to the car. Handle things quickly but project an air of calm for his sake.
Dog Rattlesnake Bite Treatment and Recovery
More than 80 percent of dogs survive a rattlesnake bite if treatment begins quickly.
Treatment is not cheap. A bite that envenomated your dog will require antivenin. It is costly to produce antivenin and costly for a vet to keep a fresh supply of vials on hand. A dog might need more than one vial.
He will need other treatment, too: It’s not uncommon for the body to mount an allergic response to the antivenin, which doesn’t help matters and requires its own treatment. Plus, he’ll probably need fluids. (The bite swells enormously with fluid, which has to come from somewhere. In fact, the fluid comes from his blood volume, which can potentially sink by a third in a matter of hours, leading to shock.) The vet may also administer pain medication and antibiotics.
After the initial 24 to 48 hours, your dog will likely be able to continue his recovery at home.
7 Tips for Hiking and Hunting With Your Dog in Rattlesnake Habitat
Head out with your dog as safely as possible.
- If you’re hiking a trail or your dog isn’t ranging, make sure she’s wearing her collar and keep her on a short leash, and keep her on the trail immediately in front of you. That way you can spot any snakes, or potential snake cover up ahead.
- Know before you go—which snakes might be found in the area, and how to tell which are venomous.
- Be aware of weather that makes snakes more active: Dawn, dusk, and weather between 77°F and 90°F.
- Equip yourself with the phone number of a nearby vet who stocks antivenin. If you are hunting outside of office hours, have a number where you can reach someone in an emergency.
- Consider bringing a muzzle in case you need to keep yourself safe as you handle a dog who is experiencing great pain. (It should go without saying, but—don’t apply the muzzle if the bite is on his poor face.)
- Look into snake avoidance training for your dog.
- Discuss the rattlesnake vaccine with your vet.
Finding Rattlesnake Training for Your Dog
When you consider the pain, expense, and true medical danger of a rattlesnake bite, it’s clear that an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
A hunting dog may encounter snakes in the field, at a distance from you. The key in training him is to select a program that helps him understand to avoid them on his own.
Aversion training associates the sight, sound, and scent of rattlesnakes with an unpleasant stimulus, often from an e-collar. (Rattlesnakes have a distinctive odor that dogs can easily learn.) A skilled trainer who understands snakes, dogs, and dog training can find the stimulus level that’s right for your dog and quickly help him make the correct unpleasant association with rattlesnakes that will keep him safe.
Remember, though, that anyone can call themselves a trainer. Do your research: Look up respected programs and trainers to get a sense of what’s sensible and good. Choose a trainer whose methods and results you are happy with.
What to Know About the Rattlesnake Vaccine
If you hunt in an area that overlaps with rattlesnake range, consider talking to your vet about the rattlesnake vaccine.
Know that all reports of the vaccine’s effectiveness are anecdotal; no one has mounted a scientific study of it. But for a lot of vets and pet owners, it falls into the ‘why not’ category. It is generally accepted as safe. It’s straightforward and fairly inexpensive. Depending on a dog’s size, the vaccine is administered in two or three doses, delivered a month apart, at about $20 a shot. A booster is required every 6 to 12 months.
Unfortunately, the vaccine does not replace treatment for a rattlesnake bite: A bite is still painful for your dog and expensive for you. But some vets suggest that dogs who are current on the vaccine experience a slower onset of symptoms, less severe symptoms, less pain, and they’re more likely to survive. Perhaps the biggest benefit for hunters is the possibility that the vaccine could slow symptom onset. If you are in snake country and far from veterinary help, that variable could buy your dog precious time.
Snakes play an important role in ecosystems throughout the United States. But you want them to play no role in days in the field with your dog. With the right preparation, you and your dog will be ready to handle a scaly situation should the need arise.