SHERIDAN — Picture this: You are out for a hike with your favorite four-legged fur baby on a warm sunny day. You’re off the beaten path, so Fido is off his leash. From a short distance, you hear him make a quick “yelp!” and maybe a subsequent whimper. What would you assume was wrong with him?
Maybe he stepped on a thorn? Or maybe something frightened him? Either way, it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal and you both resume walking. Until suddenly Fido is becoming agitated, panting and drooling more than usual and something just doesn’t seem right.
By the time you realize Fido has been bitten by a rattlesnake and get yourselves back on the beaten path to seek medical attention, it could be too late.
“It’s not as common to see the puncture wound as you would think; they get bit in weird places and the parents don’t know what happened,” said Hanna Mudder, practice manager at Mountain View Veterinary Hospital. “We’ve seen bites in the paws, behind the rib cage, everywhere. But most times they get bit in the face because their noses are down to the ground sniffing around — we’ve even seen some get bit in the tongue — and after they get bit and they start to swell in the face things like breathing start closing off.”
Mudder added that most times when you are in areas with rattlesnakes, you’re not in town, so it takes even more time to get to the vet to get the anti-venom.
But there is something you can do to protect Fido before the bite: get him a rattlesnake vaccine. The vaccine buys the owners time to get to a vet.
“The vaccine does not give them a gold ticket,” Mudder said, adding that they will likely still need an antivenom treatment after a bite. “It’s supposed to decrease the potency of the venom in their system, buy them time to get to a clinic and possibly decrease the need for future treatment.”
Once you get to a vet, it is recommended that Fido be given an antivenom. Sometimes the dogs don’t need the antivenom and they do well and walk away, and sometimes dogs get the antivenom and are still not OK.
“Most rattlesnake bites do survive,” Mudder said. “The dogs seem to do better than we think they will do, which is good.”
At MVVH, if your dog has never received the vaccination before, they will do so in a full vet visit and return for a 30-day booster shot after that. Once they begin to return annually after that, the vaccine can be delivered in the lobby with no need for a full exam slot.
March is the recommended month for the shot, as they last for approximately six months, which takes you through peak rattlesnake season.
“This year, since we got heat earlier and it’s been a warmer spring, we may see the rattlesnakes a lot sooner,” Mudder said. “In our region, they’re out there. They even saw them in the Bighorn Mountain Trail Run, so they’re obviously becoming more prevalent.”
Mudder added that there are risks with any vaccine and they typically do not see as large of a reaction area in dogs with other vaccinations as they do with the rattlesnake vaccine, in which a large lump around the injection area often forms.
“The body is going, ‘Whoa, what is it? This is a different type of antibody,’” Mudder said. “That lump will last anywhere from 10 to 21 days and then the body will just absorb it. The body is basically building a mild antibody to the venom.”
In the 10 years Mudder has been in her profession, she has only seen local reactions to the vaccine and no deaths or other major complications.
“From March and April we probably vaccinate anywhere from 45 to 60 dogs at our location alone, and over the whole course of the rattlesnake season we do anywhere from 90 to 130 dogs,” Mudder said. “One of the biggest reasons for the idea of the vaccine is to hopefully, in a perfect world, decrease the chances of needing the antivenom. The astonishing fact is antivenom is about $500 to $700 a vial and, for example, a 90-pound lab could take anywhere from two to 2.5 vial. He’s looking at $1,600 just for the antivenom and that is not including his fluids, hospitalization or anything else. And we barely mark that drug up because it’s already so expensive and the clients wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
Rattlesnake vaccinations can be purchased at most local veterinary offices, several of which are offering specials in March in honor of the awareness month.