Written by Vet

My Dog Was Bitten By A Rattlesnake: What Should I Do?

  • Written by:Dr. Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS
A common misconception is that only dogs who camp or hike are bitten by notorious rattlesnakes. However, the truth is that a majority of rattlesnake bites to dogs happens in the backyard. Read on to learn how to prevent a rattlesnake bite and how to save your canine when the bite happens.

Rattlesnakes are venomous snakes that are found throughout the USA. These snakes have long fangs that can inject venom (poison) into their prey. Dogs due to their curiosity, are commonly bitten by these snakes, and unfortunately, it can be a fatal mistake!

If your dog has been bitten by a Rattlesnake, you should stay calm and make your way to a veterinary clinic immediately. Your dog may require intensive treatment and antivenom medication to save his life.

In this article, we will discuss Rattlesnake bites in more detail, signs of a Rattlesnake bite, diagnosis, and treatment options.

We will also look at vaccination options and how you can help prevent your dog from getting bitten by a Rattlesnake. Therefore, you will be fully informed about Rattlesnake bites in dogs.

What Are Rattlesnakes?

Rattlesnakes are a type of venomous snake that can be found in rural and suburban areas. They got their name, as they have a “rattle” on the end of their tail, which makes a loud rattling noise when they want to make a warning to predators or passers-by.

There are 36 different species of Rattlesnake, each one with a slightly different appearance and a different habitat requirement.

Most species like to live near open, rocky areas. However, some species can be found in wetlands, deserts or forests. They are commonly found in places where people go hiking, camping or hunting.

Rattlesnakes tend to eat rodents, lizards, and insects. They like to “bask” in open areas when it’s sunny, to absorb heat from the sun.

They are most active in the warmer seasons, from Spring to Autumn. However, in some warmer areas such as Southern California, they may be found year-round. If you aren’t sure if Rattlesnakes live in your area, then ask your veterinarian for further advice. (1)

Good to know: Most rattlesnake bites occurred between May and September.

Why Are Rattlesnakes Dangerous?

It is estimated that there are around 150,000 dogs and cats bitten by Rattlesnakes in the United States every year. Rattlesnakes have two long fangs, which they use to bite and inject venom (poison) into their prey. This venom helps to immobilize, kill and digest their prey. (2)

Unfortunately, people and dogs can be easily bitten if they accidentally stumble across one of these snakes.

The severity of the Rattlesnake bite depends on the type and age of the snake, the season, the region, and how much venom was injected during the bite. Some snakes might bite but release no venom.

Why Do Rattlesnakes Bite?

These snakes don’t usually bite unless they are provoked or feel threatened. If a person or pet slowly backs off and doesn’t touch or provoke the Rattlesnake, then they probably won’t get bitten.

Unfortunately, curious dogs don’t usually back off when they find something interesting!

What Should You Do If Your Dog Is Bitten By A Snake?

Rattlesnake bites are a true emergency, and you need to make your way to a vet clinic immediately. You should assume it is a venomous bite if your dog is bitten by a snake, as waiting around for clinical signs could cost you your dog’s life.

  • Go to a veterinary clinic immediately.
  • Try to keep your dog calm and limit his activity, carry him if necessary. If your dog is running around or panicking, it will increase the blood circulation and encourage the spread of the venom throughout the body.
  • If possible, try to keep the bite area at or below the level of the heart.
  • Avoid touching the area of the bite, as your dog will be very painful and may unintentionally snap.

What NOT TO DO If Your Dog Is Bitten By A Snake

  • DO NOT try to suck out the venom.
  • DO NOT make an incision around the bite.
  • DO NOT apply a tourniquet, as it could cause more damage or lead to your pet requiring a limb amputation.
  • DO NOT apply ice or a cold pack. This will constrict the blood vessels and concentrate the venom, causing more severe muscle and skin damage to the area.
  • DO NOT allow your dog to run around freely.
  • DO NOT wait until your pet shows severe signs to go to the vet clinic.

What Problems Do Rattlesnake Bites Cause?

Let’s take a look at the problems the venom can cause in a dog’s body:

  1. Hemotoxic: which means it causes severe damage to the blood vessels in the body.
  2. Necrotizing: which means it causes the tissue at the site of the bite to start breaking down.
  3. Anticoagulant: It causes problems with the normal blood clotting process, which can lead to excessive, uncontrolled bleeding.
  4. Neurotoxic: The venom of some species can cause paralysis of some muscles, including paralysis of the respiratory muscles leading to problems breathing.

When the venom destroys the body tissues, it is possible for up to 1/3 of a pet’s body fluid to be lost into the tissue spaces! This can quickly lead to a big drop in blood pressure, shock, and death within a few hours of the bite if veterinary treatment is not sought. (3)

What Are The Signs Of A Rattlesnake Bite In Dogs?

It’s important to recognize the signs of a Rattlesnake bite in dogs. The signs that a dog shows will vary depending on the type of snake, how much venom was injected, and the location of the bite. Most snake bites in dogs occur on the face or the legs.

The most common signs include:

  • The bitten area starts to swell (and will often swell dramatically within a few hours)
  • The skin becomes bruised and darker in color
  • Fang puncture wounds may be seen (though commonly hidden by the dog’s hair)
  • Bleeding from the puncture wounds
  • Intense pain at the bite area
  • Muscle tremors
  • Breathing problems
  • Vomiting
  • Collapse

How Is A Rattlesnake Bite Diagnosed In Dogs?

In most cases, the diagnosis will be straight forward as the snake biting the dog has been observed, or a snake was seen in close proximity to the dog.

The veterinarian will make the diagnosis based on the history and the clinical signs the dog is showing. However, if the bite wasn’t witnessed then it isn’t always easy to diagnose, especially if the dog has long hair that hides the puncture marks.

Other conditions such as abscesses, allergic reactions, insect bites or stings can all be confused with a snakebite.

What Is The Treatment For A Rattlesnake Bite?

Treatment should be started as soon as possible to try to combat the dangerous effects of the Rattlesnake venom. Veterinary treatment may involve the following:

Clip And Clean The Bites

Firstly, the site of the bite(s) is clipped and cleansed. Often the edge of the tissue swelling is marked on the skin with a suitable marker, to monitor the spread of the injury.

IV Fluids

Intravenous fluids are administered to help prevent low blood pressure, control shock and encourage normal blood flow throughout the dog’s body.

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are drugs that reduce inflammation and also suppress the body’s immune system. Fast-acting corticosteroids may be given within the first 24 hours to help control shock, and reduce swelling and inflammation. Although the use of corticosteroids is controversial.

Antivenom

Antivenom, also known as antivenin, is a direct way of neutralizing the snake venom. However, each snake’s venom is slightly different and made up of a unique mixture of proteins, enzymes, and toxins. Therefore, the antivenom can’t prevent all the effects of the snake’s venom.

However, the sooner the dog gets the antivenom treatment the better, as it works best if it is given within the first 6 hours after the Rattlesnake bite.

Antivenom is pretty expensive, at around $450-$700 per vial, and some dogs may need numerous vials of this medication. Another disadvantage is that there is a small risk of the dog having an allergic reaction to the antivenom. (4)

Antibiotics

Often antibiotics are given as there is a high risk of the bite wound becoming infected with bacteria.

Pain Relief

Rattlesnake bites hurt a lot. Therefore, every dog should have some pain relief administered regularly until the swelling improves.

Blood Transfusion

If the dog has suffered severe blood loss or hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells) then a whole blood transfusion may be necessary to combat the blood loss.

Usually, dogs that have been bitten by a snake are hospitalized for at least 12-24 hours for observation and supportive treatment.

What Is The Prognosis?

The prognosis of a Rattlesnake bite depends on the type of snake, location of the bite, and how much venom the snake injected.

Unfortunately, if a smaller dog is bitten by a Rattlesnake it often has a worse prognosis than a larger dog.

The sooner the dog has emergency veterinary treatment the better the outcome. Thankfully most dogs with a Rattlesnake bite that receive prompt and intensive veterinary treatment will survive.

Can You Prevent Rattlesnake Bites?

There are some tips for snakebite prevention which may be useful for you and your dog if you live in a Rattlesnake zone:

  • Keep on the open paths while hiking.
  • Keep your dog on a leash, away from the undergrowth, high grass or rocky areas.
  • Prevent your dog from exploring holes or digging near rocks.
  • If you hear the rattling noise, then keep your pet close by and try to figure out where the noise came from. Then move slowly away in a safe direction.
  • If you see a snake, stop and allow the snake to retreat if possible or move slowly away.
  • Keep your dog away from dead snakes- strangely they can sometimes still bite for a few hours after death!

Is There A Rattlesnake Vaccine?

There is a Rattlesnake vaccine available in the United States. It may be a useful preventative measure if you live in a Rattlesnake zone. It won’t stop your dog from getting bitten, nor will it prevent all the effects of the snake’s venom.

However, it should reduce the severity of venom and reduce the dog’s signs.

Some people think that if their dog is vaccinated, then they don’t need to get their dog treated if it is bitten- but that is not true- dogs will still need immediate veterinary treatment.

Possible side effects with the vaccine may include a temporary lump at the site of vaccination or temporary flu-like symptoms. Talk to your veterinarian to check if the vaccine is a good idea for your dog.

My Dog Was Bitten By A Rattlesnake: What Should I Do? – Conclusion

Rattlesnake bites in dogs are a true emergency situation and the sooner your dog gets veterinary treatment the better the prognosis.

Usually, the dog will be hospitalized and monitored for signs of venom poisoning and intensive treatment including antivenom administration is often required.

If you live in a Rattlesnake zone, try to take some preventative measures to help reduce your dog’s risk of getting bitten!

If the worst does happen, and your dog is bitten by a snake then the best recommendations are to keep your dog calm, prevent him from running around, keep the bite site below the heart if possible and transport him immediately to a veterinary clinic.