Rattlesnake Season Begins

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Rattlesnakes live all over our fair country. Since it’s our preference to live on farms or ranches, we have to adjust to the fact that we have to deal with poisonous snakes more than city people do. It’s the price we pay for getting to live a pastoral existence. A couple days ago our dog was bitten. He’s the kind of farm dog that minds his own business and is best at chasing squirrels and performing as a watch dog. On Thursday he limped in with a front paw twice the normal size with no visible blood. I immediately suspected snake bite even though it’s still early in the season.

The vet said it could be a bee sting but we thought it best to take him in and when the leg was shaved there was the tell-tale “vampire” bite.

We vaccinate our dogs against bites. We knew that if they ever get bitten the vaccine buys us time to get them to a vet. How bad the bite is depends on whether or not the dog has been vaccinated, the size of the snake (larger is worse than smaller), how many bites the animal gets (many are obviously worse than one), where the snake bites the animal (on an extremity is better than on the face or nose) and how big the animal is (bigger animals fare better than smaller ones). The worst bite then would be many bites on the face and nose of a small animal by a big snake. The big snake is probably thinking “food” when it’s a small animal but “back-off” if it’s a big animal.

Our dog was vaccinated, was bitten once on the foot and is medium size. From the size of the bite it seems it was a medium size snake. The vet gave our dog a concoction of steroids, antihistamine and penicillin. Three days later he’s doing well and getting around just fine. What a trouper! Now he’s confined to the fenced in back yard until after snake season ends. Small price to pay.

The snake that got our dog was probably the northern Pacific rattlesnake because we live in northern California. There are many types of rattlesnakes all throughout the United States so familiarize yourself with the ones in your area. Though rattlesnakes are dangerous if provoked, they also provide us with a tremendous service because they eat rodents, other reptiles and insects. So if you find one living around your home or livestock area, think about how much of a threat it poses and then decide if it should live or die. They in turn are eaten by other predators like King snakes and large birds of prey, for instance. But my suggestion is don’t apply liberal politics to this one. Be conservative.

Rattlesnakes are generally not aggressive. When we’ve seen them on our ranch, they just lie there and my husband makes up stories about how they’re saying “make my day” but I think they’re inert because they’ve eaten or because they’re cold. Rattlesnakes will strike when threatened or deliberately provoked so give them room and they will eventually retreat.

Most bites occur between the months of April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors. About 25 percent of the bites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected, but the bites still require medical treatment.

– Wear tall boots and pants that cover your foot and lower leg.

– Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.

– Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see.

– Step ON logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood.

– Rattlesnakes can swim so don’t assume that floating stick is a stick. If you see one when you are in the water, swim away fast and make so much commotion that the snake will avoid you. Don’t believe the movies. (If any of you have had other types of encounters I’d like to hear about it.)

– Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side so check out the doorstep before you enter.

–Having someone with you who can assist in an emergency is always a good idea.

– Do not handle a freshly killed snake. Those fangs can prick you and venom can then get into you.

Many a useful and non-threatening snake has suffered a quick death from a frantic human who has mistakenly identified a gopher snake, garter, racer or other as a rattlesnake. This usually happens when a snake assumes an instinctual defensive position used to bluff adversaries. A gopher snake has the added unfortunate trait of imitating a rattlesnake by flattening its head and body, vibrating its tail, hissing and actually striking if approached too closely.

A rattlesnake is a heavy-bodied, blunt-tailed snake with one or more rattles on the tail. When you’ve killed a couple gopher snakes and then come upon a real rattlesnake you will immediately recognize your previous mistake. A rattlesnake has a triangular-shaped head all the time. It never goes from thin to spread out. That is gopher snake behavior. A rattlesnake’s head is much broader at the back than at the front with a distinct “neck” region all the time. Rattles may not always be present, as they are often lost through breakage and are not developed on the young. The tail is “stubby.” A gopher snake tail is long and pointy. So try not to kill one because the gopher snake doesn’t know you are an uneducated human.

If you are bitten stay calm. Usually, the most serious effect of a rattlesnake bite is local tissue damage. Children are in more danger if they are bitten because they are smaller.

Get to a doctor as soon as possible. Frantic, high-speed driving puts you in greater risk of an accident and increases your heart rate.

– Stay calm

– If bitten on the hand, remove anything that may constrict swelling. This might be hard because the area will start swelling right away. Try to remember. If you can’t, the doctor will have to cut them off.

– Immobilize the affected area as much as possible but don’t waste time putting on anything complicated. It’s better to just try not to move it much and get to the doctor.

– Get your dogs vaccinated. The vaccine make antibodies that fight the venom and buy you time to get to the vet.

* Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife “Rattlesnakes in California