A couple of weeks ago, two of our dogs were barking and lunging at something in the lawn below our house. My wife ran over and saw what turned out to be a two-foot-long gopher snake slithering through the grass. Luckily for the snake, it found a hole and escaped. We were glad the snake was not harmed, but realized that things could have gone quite differently. If the dogs had found a rattlesnake, it’s a good bet—based on how they reacted—that one of them would have been bitten, and we quickly would have been dealing with a serious problem.
Oregon is home to 15 native snake species. Of these, only the Western Rattlesnake (Croatus viridis) has poisonous venom that is dangerous to pets and humans alike. An adult rattler can be recognized by its broad triangular head, which is much wider than its neck, its vertical pupils and the rattles on the end of its tail. Dogs risk being bitten when they accidently step on a snake, or if they approach the snake curiously or aggressively—a good reason to keep dogs on leash and in control during outings to rattlesnake habitat. Cats, horses and livestock are potential victims too. For more information on Oregon’s native snakes, including the Western Rattlesnake, check out the fact sheets provided by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at www.dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/living_with/snakes.asp.
Rattlesnake bites usually occur on the head, face or legs. If enough venom is injected (which doesn’t always happen), the result is severe swelling and pain at the bite site. Depending on the severity of the bite, many victims will go into shock with critically low blood pressure, and some will some will develop blood coagulation problems. Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center gets an average of about 10 rattlesnake bite cases in dogs per month at their emergency center, according to Dr. Jamie Arvizo. Treatment involves intravenous fluids, antihistamines and pain management. With treatment, the survival rate is about 80-90 percent, and the prognosis and recovery time is significantly improved with the use of antivenin serum. There is a rattlesnake vaccine available, but its effectiveness is questionable. Dr. Arvizo cautions dog owners not to expect the vaccine to eliminate the need for emergency medical care.
There are situations, however, when emergency medical assistance is hours away. Additionally, dog owners may not be able to afford treatment with antivenin, which costs about $1,000 per dose. In these cases, treatment with the herb echinacea can be very helpful, and even life-saving. Yes—the same herb that most people know as a treatment for colds and flu has the ability to stop the venom’s adverse effect on hyaluronic acid (the “glue” that sticks body tissue cells together). This is the mechanism by which the snake venom “melts” the tissue and allows the toxin to spread and cause as much damage as possible. The venom of the brown recluse spider, by the way, works in the same manner. Quick topical applications of an extract of echinacea to the bite area can significantly decrease tissue destruction and adverse systemic effects. It is also useful to administer orally, but thanks to its strong pungent flavor (try it yourself sometime), it needs to be diluted out by 50-60 percent with honey or other bland-tasting herbs to be acceptable to most dogs. One dropperful of a standard tincture per 10-15 pounds body weight is a good starting dose.
Rattlesnakes do have a valuable place in our ecosystem, and can even help farmers by keeping small mammal populations in check. Being careful to reduce unwanted encounters with these beautiful creatures is the best approach for you, your dog and the snakes.