Warmer weather means sunbathers of all sorts including rattlesnakes


Rattlesnake SightingRAPID CITY, S.D. – They can be everywhere and anywhere, especially in areas of poor visibility, tall or thick grass or brush.  From sinks to shoes, prairie rattlesnakes have been found in a wide variety and sometimes unusual locations.

“A lot of people assume because they have never seen them in their yard that it won’t be an issue. I would say that’s pretty incorrect. Be aware of the infamous places they really like to sunbathe. Areas that have a lot of sidewalks and rocks that serve as heat sources are definitely high-risk areas,” said Dr. Melissa Master DVM, owner of Masters Veterinary Clinic.

While most rattlesnake safety is common sense for humans, it’s a different story for dogs and horses.  Dr. Masters shares ways to avoid an unfortunate run-in with rattlesnakes, which as some animals and pet owners have learned the hard way, can tragically lead to them paying a terrible, even the ultimate price.

When out hiking or trail riding keep your eyes and ears open, especially in well-hidden areas such as near downed trees or areas with heavy debris, and avoid walking or riding near paved roads at night where rattlesnakes will go to warm up after the sun goes down.  Give these areas a wide berth if possible and by all means, if you see a snake leave it alone.  Bites are more likely to occur if you or your pet provoke them or you attempt to catch a rattlesnake.

Keep your dogs leashed to avoid them from free-roaming and sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.

If it’s important to you and your dog that they be allowed to run free, each fall the Western South Dakota Bird Dog Association hosts a rattlesnake avoidance clinic.  Dogs are trained to avoid rattlesnakes with the use of defanged rattlesnakes and electronic collars. It’s also a training for dog owners.

“It’s important for dog owners to know how their dog reacts when they encounter a rattlesnake,” said Gereth Stillman, who puts on the clinic.

He said the clinic is very effective.  This years clinic will be held August 13th at the Rapid City Trap Club. The cost of the clinic is $75 for the first dog and $50 for each additional dogs. Pre registration is required.  For more information contact Stillman at 605-390-9508 or visit the Western South Dakota Bird Dog Association Facebook page.

If you are trail riding, trust your horse.  If your horse refuses to enter an area or shies away from something, give them the benefit of the doubt.  They are often aware of hazards long before we are.

Don’t always expect the rattlesnake to always give you their telltale warning, the dreaded rattle, that they are near or are going to bite. Sometimes a rattlesnake won’t rattle or can’t rattle.  In 2019, snake expert Terry Phillips of Reptile Gardens found several rattlesnakes in the Black Hills that were unable to rattle due to a deformity in their tail muscles, which has been genetically passed down over the years. And those that can rattle don’t always, over time rattlesnakes have adapted to living with humans who often kill them when alerted that they are there.

Dr. Masters says that the number of victims she sees each year varies. “It depends on the year. There are bad years and then some we don’t really see any,” she said.

Besides avoidance, your first line of defense for your dog or horse is the rattlesnake vaccine. Vaccines will help delay the onset of symptoms, lessen the severity of symptoms, decreases the chance of death, enables faster recovery times and helps diminish tissue necrosis.

“The rattlesnake vaccine is very effective. The biggest misconception about the vaccine is that just because your pet has it and get bits that they don’t have to be seen by a veterinarian. They can still have some pretty severe side affects. Typically we see a lot less hospitalizations and death associated with rattlesnake bites if they have had the rattlesnake vaccine,” said Dr. Master.

The initial symptoms of a rattlesnake bite include puncture wounds, which are not always visible and can be inside of a dogs mouth, pain, swelling, bleeding, bruising, and difficulty breathing. If not taken to a veterinarian immediately later symptoms may include tremors or shivers, seizures, diarrhea, lethargy and

In dogs the first year they get the vaccine they will need a second booster 30 days after the first vaccine.  The vaccine is only good for six months.

“Typically, we can get away with one dose for the year in this area.  If it’s a really warm spring and a warm fall you really have to do the two doses to get your full coverage,” said Dr. Masters.

The vaccine for horses is a three dose series, 30 days apart and boosters are recommended at six month intervals.

For horses, who are often bit when grazing it is critical to get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. The majority of the rattlesnake bites on horses occur on the nose or throat. Horses unlike dogs or cows are obligate nose breathers and are unable to breathe through their mouths. The swelling from a rattlesnake bite can close off their airways causing suffocation.

“There’s a lot of false information out there as far as tourniquets and ice packs and sucking the venom out. Definitely, you don’t do any of that.  The best thing you can do is stay calm and get away from the snake and call a veterinarian,” said Dr. Master.

Here is her list of first aid do’s and don’ts should your pet be bitten:

  • Stay calm. It’s important to keep yourself and your animal calm as your pet will feed off your emotions.
  • Remove yourself and your pet away from the area.
  • Do not try to trap, kill or catch the snake, take pictures of it, or bring it to the veterinarian clinic with you.
  • Seek veterinary care immediately. Time is essential especially for horses.
  • Horse owners should keep two eight inch sections of garden hose in their equine first aid kits which can be put in the horses nostrils to prevent them from from swelling shut.
  • Bring the trailer to the horse and carry your dog to the car versus having them walk. It is important to minimize movement.
  • If possible, keep the bite wound lower than the heart.
  • Do not give any medications including aspirin unless directed by your veterinarian.
  • Do not apply an ice pack.
  • Do not cut open the wound.
  • Do not try to suck the venom out.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Do not apply heat.
  • Do not apply alcohol.
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