. . . and what to do if your pet does get bitten
Common sense is your most important tool in protecting your pet from a rattlesnake strike. If you live in or will be in rattlesnake territory with your cat or dog, awareness is your first step toward prevention.
In Colorado, prairie rattlesnakes live in open prairies, croplands, as well as in the rocky foothills along the Front Range at elevations below 8,500 feet. They are frequent visitors to backyards, garages, porches, and patios, particularly to homes neighboring open prairies and homes in the foothills. In cooler weather, they are active during the day. In hot weather, they become more active in the early morning and evening.
Prairie rattlesnakes prefer to leave quietly rather than confront, but will usually rattle to warn, and will strike if threatened too closely, sniffed or stepped on. Rattlesnakes begin to emerge from their winter dens as the weather warms in late spring. Young are born between August and October, with snake activity greatly decreasing by the end of October as the snakes return to their winter dens.
• When out hiking, keep your dog on a close leash at all times, particularly in tall grass and rocky areas where you can't see the ground clearly. Dog parks also have rattlesnake visitors, so check the park out and talk with other owners before you let your dog run free.
• Aversion training is the process of a professional trainer working with your dog to recognize and avoid the sight, sound, and smell of rattlesnakes (specific to the species of snake found in your particular region). If you live in rattlesnake territory, this may be a wise investment.
• Currently, the Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) at Colorado State University does not provide or recommend the rattlesnake vaccine due to a lack of evidence of its efficacy in our region. Vaccinated dogs seen at the VTH have the same symptoms and need the same care as unvaccinated dogs. A possible danger of the vaccine is a sense of security that may delay care if owners assume their dog will be fine because it has been vaccinated. All animals bitten by a rattlesnake should receive medical attention as soon as possible.
First Aid For Rattlesnake Bites
• If your dog or cat is bitten, the most important thing to do is get to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. Do not attempt to provide any first aid to your pet – do not apply a tourniquet, do not cut the bite in an attempt to get the poison out, and do not try to clean the bite. You risk making the situation worse by delaying care, worsening the possibility of infection, as well as getting bit yourself – by your dog or cat! Rattlesnake bites are painful and even your docile pet may bite you out of fear and pain.
• If you're hiking and your dog can walk out, that's best. If you have to carry your dog, protect yourself and be careful not to touch the bite location.
• Have a plan ahead of time. Know where you will take your cat or dog in the event of a snake bite, especially in the evenings and weekends when your regular clinic may be closed. It helps to call your veterinary clinic, if they have emergency hours, or the Animal Emergency Hospital when you are on your way so they can prepare for your arrival. Most pets arrive at the hospital within an hour of being bitten.
• Do not attempt to catch the snake. Prairie rattlesnakes are the only poisonous snake in Colorado. If your dog or cat was bitten by a rattlesnake, it was a prairie rattler. Dogs can be bit by other snakes as well, including the bull snake, a very adept rattlesnake mimic. These bites, while less dangerous, still need veterinary treatment because of the risk of infection. With any luck, your dog or cat will live their entire lives without ever being a victim of a rattlesnake strike. But it's good to know what to do just in case. Stay calm, and get your animal help as quickly as possible.
Adapted from Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital's website at: www.csuvth.colostate.edu, Caring Magazine Vol. 1, No. 1.