DOGS AND RATTLESNAKES -- jim matthews outdoor column-ONS -- 09jul09


Mar 11, 2001
Reaction score
DOGS AND RATTLESNAKES -- jim matthews outdoor column-ONS -- 09jul09

Rattlesnake avoidance training and new vaccine available for field dogs


While rattlesnakes have always made the short hairs on the back of my neck jump to attention, their buzzing and undulating movement never stuck terror into my heart, and after the initial tingle, I was mostly interested in watching them and then letting them go their own way.

Then I got my first hunting dog.

Early in that yellow Labrador's hunting career with me, a big Western diamondback starting buzzing-hot between the dog and me while we were on a broken-up covey of quail. The dog made a bee-line for the coiled up snake but I managed to shotgun off the snake's head just eight feet in front of the dog's nose. My heart was thundering and I commanded the dog to come, and he obeyed without detouring to the writhing snake.

Once things were sorted out, I realized my snap reaction might have saved that dog a bite on the face, but it all happened so fast and I shot so close to the dog, I was rattled and we went back to the truck. Since that close call with my first yellow Labrador over 25 years, and another 25 years of tales of dying dogs from hunting friends and acquaintances and stories of horror from veterinarian friends, I have a different perspective on rattlesnakes.

Anyone who spends time outdoors in Southern California frequently comes across rattlesnakes, and I see more each year than I'd really like. For people who own field dogs, whether they hunt or are just companions on hikes or while fishing, we have too much invested in these animals emotionally and sometimes financially to be cavalier about snake bites. While dogs rarely die after a rattlesnake bite, the aftermath of a serious bite can leave them scarred, crippled, blinded, and changed for life. The treatment is expensive and prevention is almost impossible.

Most of all, the simple fact is that your dog far more likely to be bitten than you. Most dogs will immediately investigate the buzzing rattle and get struck on the face or paw. Even dogs that mind voice commands and immediately come aren't safe. The dogs spend far more time in bushy areas sniffing around, and they cover far more ground that we do when hiking or hunting. So they are at risk to get struck by an unseen snake without the warning buzz.

There are estimates that more than 150,000 dogs are bitten by rattlesnakes each year in this country. Most Southern California emergency veterinary hospitals, those open on weekends and evenings, see 30 to 50 cases a year, some more. Most vets in this region see one to six cases per year during their regular business hours. Treatment means at least three days under hospital care, and in serious cases this means an anti-venom injection, intravenous fluids, antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infection, and medication for pain and swelling. The price tag is going to be over $1,200 and could be double that or more if there is extensive necrosis (rotting tissue).

Field dog owners need to take precautions. For a lot of hunters, I know that means turning those rattlesnakes into hat bands and barbecue fodder whenever they run across a one (OK, they sort of taste like chicken, but more like frog legs). But we can't eliminate them all.

Rattlesnake avoidance training is a popular option and growing more and more popular each year for field dogs. Since the majority of the bites dogs receive are on the face, it means the dog was investigating the snake when struck. Avoidance training teaches the dog he doesn't want anything to do with rattlesnakes. In most training programs, the dog is introduced to the scent of a real snake, hears the buzzing, and then led up to the snake so the dog and snake are eye-to-eye. When the caged snake strikes at the inquisitive dog, the dog gets a healthy electrical shock.

In spite of how many of us feel when trying to do simple dog training, our pets are actually very bright animals. After one jolting lesson, most dogs have to be dragged over to a caged snake on a lead. They scramble to put the handler between them and the snake. If off a leash, they won't get near the cage again. The buzzing scares them. The smell makes them seek out their owner. The first time I saw how effective a shock collar was for obedience and snake training, I wanted two of them for my then-teenage boys.

But it doesn't work on all dogs. Just like most dogs won't mess with skunks after getting sprayed once, there are some dogs snake training won't help. I've been told a story of a German shorthair that ripped his lead from the handler and proceeded to attack the rattlesnake in its small cage. The dog was being shocked repeatedly as the snake stuck over and over again against the tight-meshed cage. The dog eventually killed the snake by mashing the screening onto the snake's head and then seemed content to go back to the handler who had eventually stopped shocking the dog and stood and watched the episode in awe.

(I had a hunting buddy whose Labrador felt it was his obligation in life to kill every skunk he encountered. Old Cody got good at it. He would launch himself into the air as the skunk whirled and flagged up its tail.. The spray would coat Cody's front legs and chest as he dropped down on the skunk and snapped its neck with a quick bite and shake. Since one of the places we hunted ducks was a dairy, I suspect Cody's lifetime skunk tally was several dozen. All I know is that both our hunting vehicles during that dog's life always had the faint smell of skunk.)

Virtually every veterinarian I spoke with for this story recommended snake avoidance training if your dog spends a lot time outdoors in areas where it's likely to run across rattlesnakes. These classes are typically from $50 to $80 per dog. And it's recommended that you get a refresher course after three or four years. Many hunting dog trainers run these classes regularly, and most Quail Unlimited chapters in this region have at least one 'Snake Break' each year.

There is a second precaution that is still relatively new: a rattlesnake vaccine for dogs. While veterinarians seem split on the vaccine's need or value, it's an option that many dog owners don't even know exists. The vaccine is manufactured by Red Rock Biologics in Woodland, and it was first approved for use in California in July, 2003, and nationwide in November, 2004.

The vaccine's makers, and an increasing number of veterinarians, say the vaccine reduces the severity of bites, slows the onset of symptoms, reduces pain and suffering of the dog bitten, and improves recovery time.

Martie Janway, administrative manager at Red Rock, said the vaccine creates the equivalent of 'two or three viles' of anti-venom in the dog's system, so that the snake's venom is counter-acted as soon as the dog is bitten.

Vaccinated dogs still need to be treated by a veterinarian immediately, but in many cases they go home the same day and do not require extensive treatment, frequently just antibiotics to stop secondary infections.

As with all vaccines, the protections decreases over time, and the rattlesnake vaccine protection is at its peak from one to six months after it is administered. Boosters are recommended every six months for dogs in the field year-around in Southern California, but many hunters are only having their dogs boostered once a year, so their dogs are protected during the warm months when snake activity is at its peak.

Since many, if not most, of rattlesnake bites are 'dry,' the amount of venom injected by the snake is frequently very little. Dr. Barbara Allard, owner of Northside Veterinary Clinic in San Bernardino, said she normally treats for just pain and gives antibiotics to prevent secondary infections at the wound.

"The majority of dogs get a drive-by. Most snakes are unwilling to give up all their venom on an animal they know they can't eat," said Allard, explaining that the strike is meant to scare the dog off by frightening it and causing pain. As a result, she rarely gives anti-venom to a dog unless it is struck in the body or is a small animal in obvious distress.

Allard lives in a rural area and said all but the youngest of her hunting dogs have been bitten by rattlesnakes, but she is disinclined to use or recommend the vaccine because it is so new that its long-term side affects are not known yet. She worries that this vaccine will just add to the burden placed on a pet's immune system over time. As with all vaccines, Allard recommends an as-needed use approach, and doesn't carry or recommend the rattlesnake vaccine at this time.

Dr. Dennis Culley of Mountain View Veterinarian Hospital in Upland is very much like Allard in his concern about over-medicating and over-vaccinating dogs for every ailment that's out there.

"For some vets is all about the money and they recommend everything," said Culley.

But Culley does recommend the rattlesnake venom for people whose dogs have very high risk, and he has vaccinated over 100 dogs since he was introduced to the vaccine. One of those dogs was bitten by a rattlesnake recently. While Culley said he had no way of knowing if the strike was dry or not, the vaccinated dog had minimal symptoms and required little treatment. Did the vaccine save the dog's owner a lot of anguish and expense? Did it save the dog some suffering? Maybe.

With rattlesnake 'season' in full swing. Now is the time for hunters (and other pet owners with dogs in the field) to look at options to protect their outdoor partners and their wallets. Snake avoidance training and vaccines are two things to consider. My young Labrador, Duke, is going to get both this summer.


Well-known member
Sep 2, 2002
Reaction score
Going to snake area in MT sept1-Nov 15 and have set up for avoidance training and will check with vet on shots--
Top Bottom