Keeping Dogs Safe in Snake Country

*This information was original published as a series of tweets by Dr. Emily Taylor, ASP Board Member and owner of Central Coast Snake Services.

A medium-sized red dog stares at an Arizona Black Rattlesnake from a safe distance
A medium-sized red dog stares at an Arizona Black Rattlesnake from a safe distance.

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Hiking Safety

In California, we are lucky to enjoy an extensive network of public trails like those in the Los Padres National Forest that we are free to explore with our canine companions. What are the best ways to keep your dog safe while hiking in our beautiful public lands?

Most dog owners know that hiking in California is fairly safe for people and pooches. There are indeed threats like ticks, seeds called “foxtails” can burrow their way into a dog’s skin requiring painful and costly surgery, some dogs might run through poison oak and transfer its oils onto hands that pet them, and owners of small dogs need to be aware of the threat of coyotes and other large predators. Rattlesnakes are considered to be a major threat by many because they can deliver a dangerous defensive bite when confronted by a dog.

Rattlesnakes do not want to bite dogs, but they will do so if they feel their lives are in danger.

What happens when your dog encounters a snake on a hike? The first instinct of many dogs is to stop and sniff the snake. To a rattlesnake, this appears to be a large predator going in for the kill, so they will often strike to defend themselves.

This is why many snakebites to dogs occur on the face. This results in painful and dangerous swelling and tissue damage that may be fatal if not treated by a veterinarian.

The idea of our beloved pooches being envenomated by a rattlesnake is scary. However, I have great news for you. Snakebite on hikes is mostly preventable with one simple tool that most of us already carry with us: THE LEASH.

Leashes are truly wonderful. They keep your dog by your side where you can enjoy the trail together. Most rattlesnakes, ticks, and other denizens that you may not want to encounter will be found in the shrubs, grasses, or rocks along a trail rather than on the trail itself.

Keeping your dog on leash has many other benefits. It protects wildlife like squirrels, rabbits, and birds from your dog. When you encounter other hikers with dogs on the trail, leashes allow you to control your dogs to prevent negative social encounters.

In short, leashing your dog by your side is the single best way to be a responsible dog owner because leashing protects your dog, other dogs and their owners, and wildlife.

Rattlesnake Avoidance Training

Rattlesnake avoidance training for dogs is a worthwhile investment in protecting dogs from snakebite. Dogs tend to sniff wiggly things on the ground, which can earn them a bite to the snout. Bites to the face can be painful and even deadly.

Techniques include either aversion training by pairing a rattlesnake with an unpleasant buzz from an e-Collar, or positive reinforcement training to teach dogs to avoid rattlesnakes. While I have heard about the latter, I have not seen it in action.

Dog trainers use avoidance training to teach your dog to fear the sight, smell, and sound of rattlesnakes. With good avoidance training, the stimulus is a safely muzzled rattlesnake and an e-collar that makes the dog associate the snake with the unpleasant buzz to its neck — essentially thinking it was bitten by the snake. The effect is immediate and dramatic. The dogs want nothing to do with the snakes, and this effect can last long after the training.

It is worth noting that the training is not foolproof. It only works insofar as the dog is trainable, and it doesn’t protect a dog from stepping on a rattlesnake as it runs through tall grass.

Leashing and training your dog to avoid rattlesnakes will go a long way toward protecting most dogs, which typically encounter rattlesnakes on hikes and other adventures. What about those of you who live in snake country, where rattlesnakes might regularly visit your yards?

Snake Exclusion Fencing

This might discourage them from sticking around, but snakes can still come and go. Other remedies like powders sold at hardware stores do not work at all.

The only way to completely prevent rattlesnakes from getting into a yard is with rattlesnake exclusion fencing. Check out this movie about rattlesnake fencing from AZ-based Rattlesnake Solutions:

Snakebite Treatment

Bites are very painful and can be lethal if not treated. Risk of complications and death increases for older dogs, smaller dogs, and brachycephalic dogs. No one wants to dwell on snakebite, but everyone needs to know what to do if it happens, so let’s just jump right in.

Graphic from National Snakebite Support group with information included in this text on snakebite treatment

I want to start by acknowledging that I am not a veterinarian. I am a PhD scientist who has critically read all of the relevant scientific publications on this and I have also learned a lot about the most up-to-date treatments from the veterinary toxicologists at National Snakebite Support on Facebook.

Unfortunately, some veterinarians who do not regularly treat snakebites are not up to date on the current recommendations for treatment. This is why it is essential to become educated about snakebite and to advocate for your pet when you go to the hospital.

When a dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, it is likely to be envenomated. That means that venom is injected. If your dog is very lucky, it could be a dry bite, which means no venom is injected. In this case, there will be no swelling.

If swelling and other symptoms occur, it is not a dry bite and it requires treatment. Symptoms usually arise quickly but can take up to 8 hours to be sure, so veterinarians recommend that you take your dog asap to the nearest veterinarian that stocks antivenom.

The veterinarians at National Snakebite Support have created a helpful chart that shows which medications will help your dog and which to avoid.

In case of (pitviper) snakebite to a dog, say YES to:
  • antivenom,
  • IV fluids,
  • proper pain medication, and
  • blood tests to examine how the venom is impacting your dog.
In case of (pitviper) snakebite to a dog, say NO to:
  • Benadryl,
  • steroids,
  • antibiotics,
  • NSAIDS (like Ibuprofen), and
  • subcutaneous fluids (exceptions to this may be warranted under certain circumstances that your vet can evaluate).

If your dog is bitten, I also strongly recommend that you post photos of the wound, your location, and any symptoms including bloodwork reports to the National Snakebite Support Facebook group. The vets there will help you in advocating for the best care for your dog.

Of course, the best (and cheapest!) ways to protect your dog are to leash him and get him trained to avoid rattlesnakes, which were the subjects of earlier posts this week.

Vaccine

Should you get the “rattlesnake vaccine” for your dog? Short answer: no.

There is no evidence that the rattlesnake vaccine works: The rattlesnake “vaccine” has a conditional approval from the USDA, which means it simply must be shown to be safe and does not need to have been shown to work. Indeed, it has not been shown to provide any protection.

  • This study found no difference in outcome in dogs bitten by snakes who had the rattlesnake “vaccine” and those that did not.
  • This study showed that mice treated with the dog “vaccine” had some protection against venom from Western Diamond-backed rattlesnakes, but little protection against venoms from Pacific rattlesnakes (the ones that most commonly bite dogs in California).

This study showed that several dogs who had received the rattlesnake “vaccine” died from anaphylactic shock when they were bitten by rattlesnakes because they developed hypersensitivity.

The specialist veterinarians at National Snakebite Support do not recommend the vaccine for the reasons I have described above. Join this Facebook group to learn about snakebite treatment from specialists.

The best ways to protect your dog involve prevention of snakebite in the first place, via the underrated and magical tool known as the leash and potentially via rattlesnake avoidance training and rattlesnake exclusion fencing.