I walk my dog, Corso, in the hills near my home most every morning. I frequently let him off leash so he can explore the rolling landscape of ravines, grassy slopes, shrub thickets, and tree groves. He rarely goes too far, and it’s a pleasure to watch him run, sniff, and generally be a dog. But with reports of a sharp increase in rattlesnake bites, I am more cautious about when and where I let him off leash and how far he wanders.
There are no reliable statistics on dogs bitten by rattlesnakes, but according to the California Poison Control Center, rattlesnakes bit 184 humans in California from April through June, up from 124 the previous year. The increase is most likely due to a heavy 2011 rainfall, which caused an increase in rodents, a staple of the rattlesnake diet. Because there has been lighter rainfall this year, rattlesnakes are venturing further out than normal to find food, water, and mates, which puts them in greater conflict with humans and their dogs. Increases in rattlesnake bites have also been reported in Texas, Missouri, Kentucky and Colorado.
The U.S Department of Forestry, along with other agencies, advises hikers and homeowners to exercise extra caution outdoors this summer. But it is important to remember our dogs are also at higher risk. Snake-bit dogs are showing up in veterinary emergency rooms in greater numbers this year, says Dr. Daryl Schawel of the Contra Costa Veterinary Emergency Center. “We’re seeing more bites and the snakes are being more aggressive,” he says. “We’ve had a couple of dogs that were struck twice.”
Chances are still slim that you will encounter a rattlesnake, but nonetheless it’s a good idea to be mindful, says Melanie Piazza, a director at Marin-based Wildcare. Rattlesnakes are shy creatures and tend to stay hidden from view, so one way to avoid them is to be cautious around rocks, tall grasses, and fallen logs and branches. Snakes only strike if they are provoked or feel threatened. “One of the things we tell folks is that you’re not going to get bit if you’re not in biting distance,” she says.
Watch Your Step!
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the trail. Rattlesnakes cannot regulate their body temperature, so they sometimes like to spread out on a trail or roadway to get warm in the sun. I can get so caught up in the scenery or watching Corso that I don’t pay attention to where I put my feet.
In the spring of 2011, a friend and I were walking Corso along a narrow trail in the steep, grassy hills of Wildcat Canyon, a 2,430-acre regional park the San Francisco Bay Area, when my friend heard a loud rattle right next to her foot. She had nearly stepped on a coiled rattlesnake at the edge of the trail. Even though the snake was in plain sight, its golden brown stripes and markings blended so seamlessly with the tawny path and diffuse light of the trailside rocks and grasses that all three of us nearly tread on it. The snake was content to scare the hell out of us, and did not strike before it slipped speedily into a rocky ravine.
If your dog likes the water, it’s good to remember rattlesnakes are good swimmers. In May, a 28-year-old man was bitten in the hand when he pulled what he thought was a dead baby rattlesnake (babies can inject just as much venom as adults and sometimes more) from Lake De Valle in the Bay Area. Like most rattlesnake bites on humans, it was not fatal, and the man survived after being rushed to the hospital for antivenin treatment. Rattlesnakes in the water can look like floating branches, so give lakes and reservoirs a good scan for debris before throwing in the fetch ball for your dog.
Lakes and trails are not the only places to be wary. Roughly half of the dogs bitten by rattlesnakes are struck in the safety of their own backyards. So this summer, take some preventive measures around your home by removing piles of wood, cuttings, and debris. Cut tall grasses, and if you have fruit trees, clean up their droppings or the rotting fruit will attract rodents, which in turn attract snakes.
The absolute best way to keep you dog safe is to keep her leashed. Corso is responsive to voice control, so I still let him off leash, but I’m much more selective about the terrain. I will keep him on leash if there are piles of rocks, fallen trees, or tangles of branches near the trail. I also don’t let him explore tall grasses, which is something he really likes to do. I tend to stay on the more well-traveled trails, and we take fewer walks in the remote backcountry. When he is off leash, I keep his off trail wandering to a minimum.
What to Do When You Encounter a Rattlesnake
The most important thing is to make sure you and your dog do not interfere with it in any way. Quickly get your dog under control and back away. It’s a good idea to look before you jump, or you could run the risk of stepping on another rattler. The vast majority of bites on humans are around the hand because people –- most often young males –- try to pick up the snake or otherwise handle it. Remember, rattlesnakes are much more afraid of you than you are of them. If you give them a chance, they will gladly retreat.
If your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake in the yard or on the trail, you’ll know, says Schawel, because she will immediately show signs of distress. “It hurts like a son of a gun. Most dogs are bitten somewhere in the muzzle, and if you try and touch the area of the bite, they may snap at you.”
Schawel says you should remove the bitten dog from the immediate area to prevent a second bite. If the bite is on the neck, you may want to remove your dog’s collar in case of swelling. Take the dog as quickly as possible to a vet. Do not apply a tourniquet, cut into the bite area, or attempt to suck the venom out of the wound. Do not put off seeking treatment. The longer it takes to get to a vet, the greater risk your dog is in.
Be Prepared if a Bite Occurs
Precautionary measures include calling around to find out which veterinary clinics are open 24 hours and which have a supply of antivenin. Not all vets have it on hand, and you could waste valuable time going to a clinic that is either out of the antivenin or does not treat snakebites. In California, another option is vaccinating your dog for snakebites, but it is critical to remember the vaccination only slows the harmful effects of a bite and you still must get your pup in for treatment as soon as possible.
Piazza says it’s a good idea to research habits and behaviors of the poisonous snakes that inhabit the outdoor areas you visit with your dog. “If you live in California, it’s easy because we only have the rattler,” she says. “But if you live in Florida, for example, where there are at least six species of venomous snakes, you should be doing some reading.”
Video of a Northern Pacific rattlesnake in Napa Valley:
Tips for Dogs and Humans
To avoid bites:
• Avoid rattlesnakes. Back away and give them the right of way.
• Watch your step; wear long pants and boots when in snake country.
• Look for hidden snakes before picking up wood or sticks.
• In tall grass, carry a stick to scan the ground and scare them away.
• Stay at least six feet away. Keep animals under control.
• Don’t assume a snake isn’t poisonous if it doesn’t rattle. Rattlers sometimes strike silently.
• Rattlers swim. Don’t pick up anything that looks like a stick or a branch in the water.
• Hike with a buddy if possible, and carry a cellphone.
• Get everyone in your group away from the snake so it doesn’t bite again.
• Seek emergency medical help. Decide if the quickest way to get help is to walk the victim out or to summon help.
• Remove jewelry, tight clothing, or collars from the affected area.
• Keep the victim as calm as possible.
• Don’t apply a tourniquet or try to suck out the venom.
Sources: U.S. Department of Forestry, California Department of Fish and Game, California Poison Control System