For a short and glorious time of my life, I lived in the hills of Malibu, California. Our home was on 14 acres of land and backed onto a network of mountain trails. We were blessed with three dogs at the time, a Lab, a Dalmatian, and a Husky mix. We installed fencing on our property and let the dogs run at will, opening the door in the mornings and calling them in at night. They loved it and rarely got into trouble. The biggest and only concern we ever had were the rattlesnakes.
The rattlesnake population continues to rise in California thanks to the drought, and we were warned every spring to be on our guard. Unfortunately, dogs can’t read the literature handed out by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, nor are they truly able to assess which snakes might be a danger to them.
Our Dalmatian, Dottie, was the most tenacious of the bunch. When she saw something moving, she had to go after it. One day, she bolted into a bush and yelped. Bitten, our worst fear. Straight to the vet and a sigh of relief. The rattlesnake had not injected its venom. A sign, the vet told us, that it was an older snake. The babies are the most dangerous because they do not yet know how to regulate the amount of venom excreted when biting.
With three active dogs around, we decided to be proactive. Below you will find five crucial steps to protect your canine pals from the potentially deadly bite of a rattlesnake. We did all of them, and if you live in rattlesnake country, you should, too.
The USDA approved the rattlesnake venom vaccine nationwide in 2004. Dr. Dana DePerno, veterinarian and co-owner at Malibu Coast Animal Hospital, recommends one vaccine to start and another booster six months later. It is safe for any dog more than six months of age, the only side effect being that occasionally a dog will develop a small swelling under the skin at the injection site.
The vaccine is the first safeguard against rattlesnake venom for your pooch, but unfortunately it isn’t a cure. It works by stimulating the dog’s immune system to produce antibodies against the snake venom. It lessens the dogs’ reaction to the venom, but Dr. DePerno was quick to point out that what the vaccine is most useful for is buying the owner time to get to a vet clinic.
“Last year we administered over 500 doses of the rattlesnake vaccine. In our hands, it has been safe and effective, but we still remind clients that it is not meant to replace treatment if their pets are bitten.”
Most clinics charge between $40 to $50 per injection.
Asking around in our neighborhood, we sourced the name of a snake removal expert. He came at the start of every season, tromped around in our bushes, and cleared away debris that might harbor snakes. The first year he humanely removed 15 rattlesnakes from the vicinity right around our patio. On one of his visits, he called me outside to introduce me to a rattler he had just caught. It was very unhappy, coiled up and shaking it’s tail at him. He provoked the snake several times and showed me how the snake was reluctant to bite him. It gave me confidence to walk around our property again, something that had been waning since our Dottie had been bitten.
Rattlesnakes are commonly found on hiking trails in desert regions. Dr. Deperno has a strong view on the attention you pay to your dogs while hiking. “Keeping dogs on leash while hiking, avoiding the areas off trails, identifying the closest veterinary facilities in your area where antivenin is available are all important steps to protect your pets.”
Sticking to designated trails and not allowing your pooch to roam off into the bush is a surefire way to safeguard your hike. It’s also best to look ahead on the trail when hiking and always be aware of where you and your dogs are placing your feet.
Making yourself aware of the habits and tendencies of rattlesnakes will help you to avoid any unfortunate incidents. These common pit vipers can be found all across North America, with the highest concentrations in Texas and Arizona. They don’t only live in desert ranges; they can also be found in marshes, prairies, and forests. Rattlesnakes like to hide under things such as old tires, woodpiles, and fallen logs. In spring, they are out throughout the whole day, while in summer, they tend to come out only when the sun is weakest. Rattlesnakes cannot hear you but are alerted to your presence through the vibrations of your step. They are also adept swimmers and can be found in lakes and bodies of water.
Lastly, and I feel most importantly, we invested in rattlesnake avoidance training for our dogs. Gina Gables is the owner of Ma and Paw Canine Training Services in Simi Valley, California. She has been providing rattlesnake avoidance training to her clients for the last six years and feels it is a crucial step toward protecting your dog.
Gina sets up a trail-like course and trains each dog in a 20-minute session with real rattlesnakes. The snakes had a cage-like contraption over their heads, which mean that they could see, but we were completely protected from their bite. When the dogs met the snakes, the snakes would rattle and coil up. The dogs would come closer to investigate. The trainers would deliver a low-grade shock to the dogs.
It was heartbreaking to watch, but even I had to admit, a small shock to create an aversion to rattlesnakes was better than a stinging dose of venom, which could potentially kill my loved ones. Knowing that the process has a stigma attached to it due to the controversial nature of shock collars, Gina also offers an alternative in the form of a remotely activated collars, either that vibrate or spray canned air.
Gina stands firm behind the process, “If it’s done correctly, I believe it works. We’ve taken a lot of time and thought into making our program as comprehensive, effective, and humane as possible.”
The average cost for rattlesnake avoidance training ranges between $75 to $100.
Using the combination of the above five tactics, we were able to avoid any more unfortunate snake incidents with our furry friends. Avoidance training offered the biggest advantage. After several tries, the dogs would see the snakes and head the other way. If anything, these simple steps gave us peace of mind and the ability to adventure into the beautiful Santa Monica mountain range without fear. Money and time well spent.
Read more on dogs and rattlesnakes:
About the author: Maya Bastian is a dreamer by nature, a wanderer at heart, and an artist when the inspiration strikes. After almost a decade of spending every waking hour working and playing with a bunch of furry, four-legged friends, she realized she was never going to be able to pee outside as well as they did, so she quit and started traveling the world. Now based out of L.A., Maya works as a documentary filmmaker and video artist. She misses those days of canine connection and wrestling in the park, but she doesn’t miss picking up all that poop.