As winter turns into spring, people and their pets will head outdoors to enjoy the sunshine, and creatures will emerge from their hiding places to enjoy the spring air as well. As you head out to admire the birds and smell the fragrant flower buds, be on the lookout for not-so-friendly warm-weather critters. Springtime means that rattlesnakes will slither out from their winter hibernation spots looking for their first meal in months.

Location of rattlesnakes

Colorado is home to three species of rattlesnakes:

  • Prairie rattlesnake — found throughout the state in all types of habitats (prairies, foothills, and even backyards)
  • Western rattlesnake — found west of the Continental Divide, mainly near the Utah border
  • Massasauga rattlesnake — found in the sandy areas of southeastern Colorado

Rattlesnakes are timid and prefer to hide out of sight. They like areas with lots of cover, like rocks, tall grass, and shrubs, so they are commonly found in forests, rocky areas, and along shorelines. Even though they prefer to stay under cover, rattlesnakes can be found sunning themselves on a warm, sunny day out in the open. You are most likely to encounter a rattler when hiking in the woods or mountains, but they are also known to hang out in suburban backyards.

Dangers of rattlesnakes to your pet

Rattlesnakes are the only venomous snakes found in Colorado. They harbor venom in glands located above their fangs that is released into their victim’s flesh during a bite. If you own a cat that spends time outdoors, she is at risk, but dogs are much more likely to suffer a rattlesnake bite. Dogs tend to be more curious, sticking out their noses to sniff new things; it’s no surprise that most snake bites occur on the muzzle and front legs of our canine friends.

If your pet is bitten by a rattlesnake, the immediate effects include:

  • Puncture marks that will likely bleed
  • Bruising and swelling of the site
  • Intense pain

As venom courses through your pet’s body, its anticoagulant effects can cause uncontrollable bleeding, shock, and death. Look for these signs a few hours after the bite:

  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Muscle tremors
  • Slowed breathing
  • Collapse
  • Shock

What to do (and what not to do) if your pet is bitten by a rattlesnake

If you see your pet get bitten by any snake, do not delay—stay calm and take your pet for immediate veterinary treatment. Even if the snake is not a rattlesnake, all snake bites require treatment for tissue damage and potential infection. DO NOT try any of these home remedies you may have heard about:

  • Do not try to suck the venom out of the bite wound—putting your face near your pet’s painful wound may prompt him to bite you.
  • Do not lance or cut the skin over the bite—this will only cause your pet to lose more precious blood.
  • Do not place a tourniquet around the affected body part—restricting blood flow to the affected tissue can enhance the damage.
  • Do not administer aspirin or other medications—they can worsen bleeding.
  • Do not apply ice—it will likely not help, and the time you take to make an ice pack may delay critical emergency treatment.

Treatment for rattlesnake bites

Rattlesnake bites are treated with supportive treatments, such as IV fluids, pain medications, and antibiotics. We carry antivenin at our hospital, which may also be administered to counteract the effects of the venom. Antivenin contains antibodies made by animals that have been exposed to rattlesnake venom. Their blood is collected, and the antibodies are harvested for animals that require emergency snakebite treatment.

How to avoid rattlesnake bites

Prevention of rattlesnake bites remains the most important way to keep your pet safe. Follow these tips to avoid a potentially fatal mishap:

  1. Make yourself familiar with local rattlesnake species. Study pictures so you know which snakes to steer clear of during your hikes. Although the telltale rattle is a dead give-away, not all snakes will rattle before striking.
  2. Stay on cleared paths and don’t stray into brush, grass, or rocky areas.
  3. Keep your dog on a short leash. Never allow him to wander off into areas where rattlesnakes are likely to be hiding.
  4. If you see a rattlesnake, remain calm and slowly back your pet away from it, out of striking distance.
  5. Warn others in the area that a rattlesnake was seen.
  6. Never attempt to handle or kill a rattlesnake.

The rattlesnake vaccine

Golden Paws Animal Hospital carries a rattlesnake vaccine. This may be of benefit to your dog if he is in a high-risk area, like our table mountains and foothills. It’s important to understand what the vaccine can and cannot do. If your pet is vaccinated and gets bitten, he will still need to receive immediate emergency treatment, including antivenin. The vaccine does not make your pet immune to rattlesnake venom. Rather, it helps reduce the inflammation at the site of the bite.

In the last two years, Golden Paws has had two vaccinated patients that were bitten by rattlesnakes and were treated appropriately with antivenin. Both were out of the hospital in fewer than 24 hours, while a typical hospital stay for unvaccinated pets is two or three days.

Questions about rattlesnake safety? Contact us today.