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Dog Bit by a Rattlesnake? Here’s What to Do! (Our Vet Answers)

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By Dr. Joanna Woodnutt


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Dr. Joanna Woodnutt

BVM BVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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There are few sounds as terrifying as the shh-shh-shh of a rattlesnake — especially if you can’t see the snake in question. It feels like every movement could lead to certain death.

However, if you’re like most dog owners, you’d gladly take a bite from a rattler if it meant protecting your dog in the process. Sadly, though, many dogs aren’t as cautious around these animals as you are, and they’ll run right at the danger — often getting a nose or leg full of venom in the process.

If your dog has been bit by a rattlesnake, you shouldn’t panic — but don’t waste time either. Safely get away from the snake and check your dog for signs of a bite. Then get your dog to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. Try to avoid getting your dog’s heart rate up and keep the wound below your dog’s heart if possible. If you can, call ahead to let the vet know you’re on your way. These bites can be fatal, and every second matters, so follow this guide to give your pooch the best chance of pulling through.

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Take Action Before the Rattlesnake Bite Occurs

Preventing a snake bite is a thousand times better than trying to cure one. Not only will it save you from having to pay a whopping vet bill, but stopping a bite before it happens will be much better for your dog.

It’s extremely important to teach your dog the “leave it” command — really drill it into their skulls. They need to know to stop immediately when you tell them to, so you don’t have to struggle to pull them off the snake. You should also keep your dog on a leash at all times so you can pull them away at times like this.

Be careful about where you’re walking as well. If you know that you live in a rattlesnake-heavy environment, avoid tall grasses or rocky areas, as these are common hiding places. There’s no guarantee that you won’t run into a rattler out in the open, of course, but you have a much better chance of seeing it ahead of time and avoiding an interaction.

If you do walk through such an area, do so as noisily as you can. Try to stomp your feet, and carry a big stick to whack the ground with. Snakes respond to vibration, so you want to give them plenty of warning that you’re on your way.

You should also talk to your vet about giving your dog a rattlesnake venom vaccine. This won’t completely safeguard your pup from getting bitten, but it should give them more time to fight off the venom if a strike occurs — and an extra hour or two could mean the difference between life or death.

The 5 Things to Do If Your Dog Is Bitten By a Rattlesnake:

1. Get Away as Quickly as Possible

Even if you know your dog has definitely been bitten, that doesn’t mean the danger has passed. Snakes can strike multiple times, and if they inject venom every time, your dog’s chances of survival will decrease with every bite.

Not only that, but the snake might come after you too. If it feels threatened, it will lash out at everything in the area, and snakes have deceptively long strike ranges. It’s best to get out of its way as quickly as you can.

However, don’t just trudge away blindly or in a panic. There’s a chance that other rattlers may be in the area, so watch where you’re walking. The last thing that you want to do is stumble into a den of them.

Remember that it’s you who should leave as well. Don’t try to scare away the snake, and definitely don’t try to physically move it. Let it win this round.

If the snakebite happened around your home rather than in the wild, you may need to call Animal Control to come remove it. Don’t try to do it yourself unless you have experience with dangerous snakes.

2. Check Your Dog for Signs of a Bite

When you come across a rattlesnake next to your dog, panic can set in, and you may not have a good idea of what exactly transpired during the encounter. You may not even know for certain if your dog’s been bitten, so before you rush to the nearest animal hospital, you should inspect your dog thoroughly.

Your dog should let you know immediately if something is wrong. If you notice any changes in their behavior, stop and look for the following signs:

  • Bleeding puncture wounds
  • Swelling around the wound
  • Change in breathing
  • Acting fearful or hurt
  • Sluggish behavior or lethargy

All of these are bad signs. However, they may not mean that your dog has actually been injected with venom. Venom is precious to rattlesnakes, and they don’t always inject it when they bite — sometimes they’ll do something called a “dry bite,” which will just cause puncture wounds.

Don’t take any risks, though. If the snake’s fangs punctured your dog’s skin, assume that they injected venom. You should also be aware that your dog is likely in a great deal of pain, and they may be more likely to lash out than usual. Don’t get bitten while poking and prodding their wound.

Also, we should tell you that if there’s even a chance that your dog was bitten, you should rush them to the vet, even if you think that they’re fine. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late to find out that you were wrong.

A dog has bleeding on its foot
Image Credit: Mrs.Rungnapa akthaisong, Shutterstock

3. Don’t Try to Treat the Bite in the Field

Forget everything that you’ve seen on TV about treating snakebites, especially if the information came from old black-and-white westerns.

Don’t try to suck out the venom. It’s already in the bloodstream, and all you’re going to get is a mouthful of dog blood. It does your dog no good, and the time you waste trying it makes it less likely that your dog will survive.

Also, forget trying to make a tourniquet. They’re not effective, and even if they are, they’ll limit the venom to a particular area. That speeds up tissue death in the area, and it will also keep the wound from clotting.

Your focus should be on getting your dog to the vet as quickly as possible. If you can, carry your dog to the car, but if not, try to move slowly but methodically. You don’t want to get their heart rate up more than necessary.

If you can, keep the wound beneath heart level. You don’t want the venom making it to the heart if at all possible, so don’t elevate the wound, as that will make gravity work against you.

4. Call for Help Immediately

As soon as you can, call the nearest emergency vet and apprise them of the situation. They can give you tips about how to handle the bite before you come in, and they’ll be better equipped to treat your dog quickly if they know that you’re on your way.

If things get really bad and your dog becomes unresponsive, they can also coach you through performing CPR. This shouldn’t be necessary if you’re prompt about seeking treatment, though.

They may ask you questions about the snake that bit your dog, so it’s best to make the call while the encounter is fresh in your mind. Don’t go back or try to capture the snake, though — your best guess is better than getting bit while trying to play detective.

Besides, most local vets will be familiar with the types of snakes in the area, so they should be able to identify the culprit without much trouble.

dog laying on surgery table
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

5. Get to the Vet ASAP

All the actions that you take before taking your dog to the vet are important, but the essential thing is to get them medical assistance as quickly as possible.

Go to the nearest clinic that’s open, even if it’s not your regular vet. Time is of the essence, so you’re better off trying out a new doctor than driving an additional 15 minutes to get to your vet.

If you’ve called ahead, the vet will be ready for you, and they’ll whisk your dog into the back immediately. They’ll also have an antivenin kit ready, saving precious minutes.

The doctor will most likely start by flushing the affected area with saline to remove dirt, debris, and any venom that hasn’t been absorbed into the wound. Then, they’ll inject the antivenin to neutralize the venom that’s already in the bloodstream, as well as administer antibiotics and pain relievers.

Most doctors will want to keep your dog for a few days for observation. If it’s a severe bite or if it took too long to seek out medical attention, your dog may need a blood transfusion or even a ventilator.

What’s the Prognosis?

If your dog receives prompt medical care, their chances of survival are good. It’s estimated that 80% of dogs can survive a rattlesnake bite if treated in time.

However, that will depend on a variety of factors. Smaller dogs are obviously more at risk of dying than larger dogs, and older dogs and puppies will struggle as well.

The amount of venom that the snake injected is key too. Snakes tend to have more venom during warmer months, as that’s when they’re hunting the most. Baby snakes tend to use more venom, as they haven’t yet learned how to regulate the amount that they inject.

The location of the bite also plays a role in your dog’s odds of survival. The closer the bite is to the heart, the worse your dog’s chances will be. Most bites tend to occur on the face, legs, or neck, though, as those are the body parts that your dog will most likely use when trying to catch or kill the snake.

Not all rattlesnakes are equally venomous either. The Mojave rattlesnake is believed to have the most potent venom, so it will do the most damage to your dog. You should take all bites seriously, though, regardless of the species that inflicted it.

Image Credit: Kittimat05, Shutterstock

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Be Careful Out There

If you’re an outdoorsy type who lives in an area that’s filled with rattlesnakes, there’s a good chance that you’ll come across a rattler sooner or later. That could spell trouble for both you and your dog.

However, there’s no reason to stop venturing out into nature. Most snake bites can be avoided, and those that can’t are often survivable if you seek treatment quickly enough.

Remember, they’re more scared of you than you are of them — which is saying something, because rattlesnakes are absolutely terrifying.

Featured Image: Wild0ne, Pixabay

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