Dog ownership comes with a lot of responsibilities. Feeding, exercising, grooming and regular vet visits are familiar routines for every dog owner, but having pet dogs in the Sonoran Desert comes with its own unique set of concerns. The weather, landscape and wildlife of this desert we call home are as beautiful as they are unforgiving. When rattlesnakes frequent your back yard and you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, simple tasks like going for a walk or even letting your dog into the back yard for a potty break can require some advance planning and special attention.
Every year, hundreds of dogs in Arizona are bitten by rattlesnakes. Whether or not a snake bite is fatal will depend on your dog’s resistance to the venom, where they were bit and the amount of venom they received. The “lucky” dogs may just spend a few miserable weeks healing from the oozing, swollen sores at the envenomation site. Others won’t be so lucky. If your dog DOES survive a bite, you can expect $3000 – $10,000 in ensuing veterinary bills. Due to the high cost of anti-venom, a few thousand of that may be due the moment you walk into the office in order for the vet to administer it.
Rattlesnake venom is categorized into three different types, and some species carry all three. Hemotoxic venom attacks the red blood cells – specifically their ability to prevent clotting – and acts as a digestive aid, breaking down proteins to make the nutrients available to the snake. This type of venom kills slower than others as it tends to localize in the bite area, essentially melting the muscle tissue away from the bone, resulting in permanent tissue loss or death.
A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Cytotoxic Venom, which generally contains myotoxic peptides, inhibits basic cell functions while the myotoxin simultaneously causes rapid necrosis of the tissue. Tissue in the affected area becomes black and ooze-like, producing a putrid, rotting smell.
The most dangerous of the three – Neurotoxic Venom – gives the Mojave Rattlesnake its feared reputation. Neurotoxic venom works considerably faster than other types. A bite from a Mojave can do swift and deadly damage to the central nervous system. Depending on the bite location and amount of venom, a 200lb man could suffer paralysis, suffocation and heart failure within an hour.
Because our dogs are curious by nature, Rattlesnakes pose a likely and immediate threat. For a dog who startles a snake in a shady spot on the patio, a potty break can become a nightmare in the blink of an eye.
A Golden Retriever suffering a rattlesnake bite to the eye
So how do you protect your dogs from a snake bite?
For folks with an existing wall or fence on their property, a bit of ¼” hardware cloth on openings and door-sweeps may do the trick. ¼” mesh will keep out venomous snakes, toads, Gila Monsters and other unsavory creatures with relative ease. This will work great for your back yard but doesn’t mitigate the dangers of walking or hiking with your dog.
If your dog is old enough, they could benefit from the rattlesnake vaccine, which can lessen the effects of the venom and buy you some extra time to get them to the vet. The vaccine needs to be boosted at regular intervals but is generally affordable.
The best, and most effective way to keep your dog safe, however, is to have them undergo rattlesnake avoidance training with a reputable dog trainer. Avoidance training teaches your dog to identify venomous snakes by their smell, appearance and sound and associate them with an unpleasant sensation. When done correctly, the dog will exhibit a fear response when it knows there is a rattlesnake nearby, and attempt to escape by moving away from it. As an added bonus, many dogs exhibit very recognizable behavior that can let their owner know there’s a snake before either of them even see it. Like the vaccine, aversion training should be maintained on a regular basis for best results.
Three weeks ago, one of our clients in Green Valley was out walking at dusk with her German Shepherd whom she recently adopted from the Animal League of Green Valley. Our client didn’t happen to notice the Diamondback stretched out on the sand-colored gravel next to the sidewalk, and would have walked right into bite range had she been walking alone. Duchess’ training kicked in, and as soon as she smelled it, she became visibly upset and pushed her owner three feet to the right, well out of harm’s way. As she looked around to see what had set Duchess off, she honed in on a perfectly camouflaged Western Diamondback, nearly 3 feet long, its head inches from where her foot would have landed.
Because we give yearly re-checks and touch-up training to our clients at no additional cost, she can rest easy knowing that she and Duchess can safely enjoy their dusk-walks for years to come.
Cerberus K9 owner/lead trainer Joe Reaves fitting a Western Diamondback rattlesnake with a protective, no-bite hood prior to a training session
Cerberus K9 2016