Many dogs and owners love to spend time together in nature. Hiking and camping are great activities for you and your dog to bond, get some exercise, and slow things down. Unfortunately, there are many things in nature that can be dangerous to our dogs, including rattlesnakes. There is a rattlesnake vaccine that may lessen the pain and increase the chance of recovery, but is this vaccine necessary and does it really work?
What are rattlesnakes?
A rattlesnake is a general term for any species of venomous snake with a segmented tail that makes a rattling sound when shaken. These snakes use their rattle as a warning sign before striking potential threats. They are found all over the US but mostly in the southwestern states.
Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded reptiles and are most active in the warmer months between May and September. However, in hotter climates, they may be active for longer periods of time or even throughout the year.
What happens when a dog is bitten?
Rattlesnake bites are incredibly painful and can be fatal. Snake venom is a mixture of protein, enzymes, and hemotoxins. When this venom is injected into small prey, it will kill within minutes and start the digestive process. On larger animals, swelling will start at the puncture site and spread rapidly. This can lead to choking and asphyxiation. Some dogs may also go into shock due to the intense pain. In addition, the venom will cause the tissue to necrotize (die) and can result in permanent scar tissue and even the loss of limbs. This is why it is so important to seek medical help immediately!
At the vet, your dog will be given antivenom (also known as antivenin) to neutralize the venom. These vials average around $600 each and some dogs will require multiple doses. In general, they will also receive pain relievers and antibiotics to treat or prevent infection. Your dog may also be given fluids, respiratory support, and corticosteroids to help protect the tissue from necrotizing.
The good news is that most dogs will survive - only about 5% of dogs will die from rattlesnake bites. Around 20% of snakebites are dry, meaning no venom is injected, and these bites will usually only need pain relievers and antibiotics. Generally speaking, smaller dogs will succumb more often than larger breeds due to how fast the venom spreads in their body.
How the vaccine works
The creator of the canine rattlesnake vaccine, Red Rock Biologics, claims it can help reduce pain and reduce the risk of permanent damage. This is done by the body generating antibodies after the immune system is stimulated. These antibodies will help neutralize the venom, potentially giving you more time to seek help before permanent damage occurs. Keep in mind, this vaccine is not an alternative for treatment. You will still need to seek veterinary treatment immediately.
Side effects are rare and generally mild. They may include a lump at the injection site or flu-like symptoms. Most dogs will have no reaction at all.
The average cost of a rattlesnake vaccine is $25 per dose and will require two doses about 4 weeks apart initially. In addition, your dog will need a booster every year about 30 days before “rattlesnake season” is in effect. If you live in a hot climate where rattlesnakes are present most of the year, your dog will need to be vaccinated every 6 months.
What snakes are covered?
There are 32 rattlesnake species in North America. Unfortunately, the current rattlesnake vaccine only covers the western diamondback rattlesnake. This snake is found in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma. It does not cover the cottonmouth or water moccasins.
Who needs one?
Because the vaccine currently only covers the diamondback rattlesnake, dogs living in the southwestern states are the best candidates. However, the label also suggests effectiveness against close relatives including timber rattlesnakes, sidewinders, and copperheads.
If your dog spends a lot of time in places where these rattlesnakes are present, they may benefit from the vaccine. Especially if your dog spends time off-leash and is not closely supervised. Being cold blooded animals, they are often found basking in the sun on rocks and across roads and trails. This makes them an easy accidental target for a dog running and exploring.
When threatened, a rattlesnake will shake the end of its tail creating a distinct rattle sound. For humans, this is an obvious and well-known warning of potential danger. For dogs, they may not notice it or even be drawn to it out of curiosity which could lead to a bite.
Controversy and Efficacy
Unfortunately, there is a bit of controversy surrounding this vaccine and whether or not it is effective. A 2014 study of 82 dogs found no significant protective effect in vaccinated dogs. It also found “no statistically significant difference in morbidity or mortality.”
Another concern among vets is the lack of science behind the vaccine. There is very little research on the effectiveness and most evidence given is anecdotal. In addition, there is a concern that because rattlesnake venom is so fast-acting, there simply isn’t enough time for the body to release antibodies and neutralize the venom.
What should you do if your dog is bitten?
Whether or not you choose the vaccine, acting fast is the most important thing when it comes to rattlesnake bites. Unfortunately, there is nothing that you can do in the moment other than seeking immediate veterinary care.
If your dog gets bitten, try to remain as calm as possible.
You will need to get your dog away from the snake (and avoid a bite yourself) as quickly as you can. If you are able, make a mental note of any identifying features. If there is more than one species in your area this can help your vet narrow down which one your dog was bitten by.
If possible, carry your dog to your vehicle. You want to keep your dog as calm as you can and avoid increased blood flow (from running, etc) as this can spread the toxin faster. Do not touch the bite site.
Get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If you can, call them on the way to let them know you are coming. I like to keep my local emergency vet and regular vet in my contacts so I can easily find the number if I’m panicked or upset.
What not to do
Do not try to suck out the venom.
Do not create a tourniquet. This will concentrate the venom in one location causing the surrounding tissue to rapidly necrotize.
Do not touch the bite site. Venom can be transferred through tiny cuts. In addition, your dog will be in intense pain and may bite or snap at you.
Do not ice the wound. This can also cause the tissue to necrotize faster.
Is the vaccine worth it?
Some pet parents consider the vaccine worth having even with the lack of evidence. As any potential side effects are mild, worst-case scenario, it is $50 gone. Best case, it may give you more time to seek medical attention. It may also reduce the number of vials of antivenin needed if your dog is bitten. Antivenin is anywhere from $450 -$1000 per vial, depending on your location, so this will significantly reduce the cost of treatment.
Keeping your dog safe
The best way to keep your dog safe is to avoid rattlesnakes as much as possible. Get familiar with where they live in your area and be properly cautious. Hiking in snake territory in the cooler months will dramatically reduce, although not eliminate, your risk of crossing paths. If you can, avoiding their territory entirely is your best option.
Teaching your dog to “leave it” can also be helpful. Like most animals, snakes will often try to leave a situation before attacking. The “leave it” cue will keep your dog from following and antagonizing the snake.
Most states with rattlesnakes will also have many options for rattlesnake avoidance training. If you think it likely you may come across a snake in your adventures this is well worth looking into.
Regardless of whether or not you choose to vaccinate, it is important to be prepared and aware of any potential threats. The vaccine is not a replacement for medical treatment. If your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake, be sure to see your vet as soon as you can to ensure your dog not only experiences as little discomfort as possible but is also safe from lasting effects and possible death.