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Desert Dangers: Rattlesnakes


We’re continuing our discussion of the deadly dangers in the desert for pets. Today, we’re discussing one of the most obvious ones: rattlesnakes.

Since I’ve lived here, I’ve seen my fair share of snakes. They are very common down here and you’ll run into them if you spend any amount of time hiking or working outdoors.

They show up everywhere, from the middle of the city to the outskirts of town. If you visit Arizona, you’re likely to see one as well – our snake seasons seem to be getting a bit extended and even in winter, you can run into one.

[heading style=”1″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Snakes and Pets[/heading]

Approximately 300,000 dogs and cats are bitten each year by snakes.

This number increases each year (and that number was taken in 2011). So, you do the math.

[heading style=”2″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Snake Aversion Therapy[/heading]

There is a method of training available that we strongly recommend if you live in an area where rattlesnakes are prevalent. it’s known as Snake Aversion Therapy. There are a few ways of doing this successfully, but it requires the assistance of a skilled, very trustworthy handler. For more information on this therapy, read the article,Snake Aversion Therapy

The good news:

~ Snakes don’t want to bite you or your pet. They will only strike if they feel threatened or if they are eating. So unless you have a pet rat, you don’t need to worry about your pet getting eaten. This is why its so important to not threaten a snake. If its just lying in the sun, leave it alone. If its lying on a trail, give it a wide berth. Just leave it alone.

~ 25% of bites are “dry” bites: Snakes don’t want to waste their venom any more than you want it injected into you, so it often won’t bother to inject any venom. Nevertheless, you should treat it bite as if it is venomous.

The Bad News:

~ Most dogs will run up on a snake because its a natural drive.
~ Chances are good your dog will receive an actual poisonous bite due to its size.

[heading style=”2″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Avoiding Snakes[/heading]

The only way to truly see the beauty of the desert is to get out there and hike through it. And you absolutely should do that if you ever have the opportunity… Don’t let fear hold you back. This article is intended to make you aware, not to scare you away.

The desert is truly one of the more beautiful landscapes. It comes alive at night and during the day, it withers into itself, hiding from the heat in a long siesta. The desert can never be truly seen until it is truly experienced. 

You can only see the best of the desert has to offer by hiking the rugged and hostile terrain.

So don’t let snakes scare you from the trails. Just be prepared.

Here are some things you can do to prepare you and your pet for a hike in the mountains.


[heading style=”2″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Aversion Snake Training[/heading]

The only time we will ever support the use of a shock collar is while snake-Training your dogs. Snake Aversion Therapy is the most effective way to train a pet to avoid (and warn you) of a snake.

We have had a dog that was bitten by a rattlesnake and I will describe it one word – horrifying.

We saved the dog, but only after thousands of dollars in vet bills, several days at the veterinarian hospital, and he still had problems afterwards that he never got over…

Be aware that if you have a very sensitive dog, you should never use any type of aversion training. Ever. Even when snake training – it’s too easy to do more damage than good.

For example, we have one dog (Brock, pictured to the right) who I would NEVER consider using any negative enforcement training methods on because he is far too sensitive. No, I won’t even do it for a reason as important as rattlesnake aversion therapy.

This presents a huge problem in preparing our dogs for snakes. Fortunately, we don’t see many of them where we live or while we’re out hiking. But that’s due to me knowing the area fairly well and understanding what to look for.

What to do to protect a dog sensitive to negative training or aversion therapies? There is one other option and that is…


[heading style=”2″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Positive Training for Snake Avoidance[/heading]

There are some less intrusive training programs popping up and we’re happy to see this occur, but question the effectiveness. We’ll tell you about them though. Penny DiLorento, owner of K9DogPark.com offers Snake Avoidance classes in the San Diego area. We like this concept because she utilizes all five senses (just as any trainer should) by using rattlesnake sight, sound, smell, simulations and pyrotechnics as an alternative to programs that use shock, prong and choke collars.

Seize the Leash facility in Tucson, Arizona and The Canine Center for Training and Behavior in Austin, Texas teach your dogs to alert you upon encountering a snake. Their services function quite similarly to a basic service dog training and utilize real life scenarios (such as hiking on trails).

I have not tried positive training for snake avoidance yet, so I can’t comment on it’s effectiveness, but I would always push for a positive approach over aversion therapy and support you in using this method first. If it doesn’t take, you can always move on to the more dramatic approach.

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[heading style=”2″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Snake Vaccines[/heading]

There is now a rattlesnake vaccine that you can get for your dog, but there are a few things you need to know about it before you commit to it for your pets.

1. it’s only formulated to protect against the Western diamondback venom (known as Crotalus atrox). If you travel back East, or have an unfortunate run in with a different type of snake (such as a Mohave which is even more toxic and aggressive than the Diamondback), then it’s not going to be effective.

2. It only works for a limited time and it’s an extensive (and expensive) process. Your dog will need 2-3 vaccinations over the course of 4-6 weeks. A booster vaccine is then required every 6-12 months.

3. It may help against other toxins: They don’t guarantee it (or anything, for that matter), but it may be effective against similar venoms like the sidewinder, the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead.

4. It does NOT protect against the Mojave rattler, coral snakes or water moccasins. They have a different type of venom.

[divider style=”5″ color=”#006666″ icon_color=”#006666″ icon_style=”3″ top=”yes”]

If you run across a snake:

  • Back away slowly.
  • Turn and leave the area.
  • Keep your dog between yourself and the snake. I know it sucks, but the bottom line is you can drive to the vet, your dog can’t drive you to the ER.
[box title=”If Your Pet Is Bitten By A Snake” box_color=”#006666″]This is an IMMEDIATE emergency call to the vet. No questions. Don’t get online and research it. Just go to the vet immediately. [/box]

Why is this such an emergency? Let me tell you a little about how venom works…

Rattlesnakes are constantly evolving and they now produce a complex brew of toxic peptides, polypeptides, and enzymes.

According to Natural History Magazine, “Rattlesnakes harbor so many biochemical mixtures for venom that toxinologists who analyze the stuff confront a range of variations rather than a standard formula for each species.”

Bottom line – what used to be just a straightforward bite of venom that worked solely on your heart or blood, victims can now receive both types of poison from a single bite.

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[heading style=”2″ color=”#996633″ style_color=”#996633″]Types of Venom[/heading]

1. Cytotoxin: This poison begins the digestion of prey before it’s even swallowed. Great for the snake, not so great for the victim. The venom will begin eating away at cells in the muscle to collapse tissue. Cytoxins are some of the most primitive forms of venom and they’re still around for a reason – they work…

2. Hemotoxic Venom: Once the tissue begins to break down, the snakes cocktail of poison works on other issues, particularly the blood. If untreated, the area around the bite would become gangrenous and turn black. Sometimes the venom can attack the kidneys.

3. Neurotoxins: This poison focuses on the neurological system by blocking nerve impulses to muscles. Bottom line: You won’t be able to breathe, move, yell for help, swallow, scream. Its’ a nasty toxin. It used to be found in vipers (like the cobra) but now they are seeing it in Mojave rattlesnakes – making it the most deadly rattlesnake in the United States. Death can occur in as little as 10 minutes.

4. Dry Bite Suffocation: Even if your pets receive a “dry” bite (no poison),  you still need to get to the ER. Most animals investigate things with their nose, which means they are bitten on the nose. The bite will cause your pets face to swell and they can suffocate. This is how a rattlesnake kills a horse.

And that is why you have to run to the nearest veterinary hospital if your cat, your dog, any other pets, or yourself is bitten. If you’re bitten, go to the ER. Okay?


[box title=”Learn About Desert Wildlife” box_color=”#006666″]

Learn more about Desert Wildlife in our “Desert Dangers” series for pet owners.



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