Reducing the Risk of Rattlesnake Encounters

Our recent heat wave in March, lured many a Rattlesnake from deep slumber, so until the cooler days of fall, those of us with dogs and horses need to be especially vigilant when hiking, as well as within the boundaries of our own property.

Snake bites occur in equal numbers on hiking trails and in back yards. Because of their natural curiosity, and sometimes prey drive, our canine companions are 20 times more likely to be bitten by a venomous snake, than we are. About 80 percent of bites occur around the muzzle.

Simple preventive measures should include inspecting your property, particularly rocky areas and wood piles. Rattlesnakes could be hiding anywhere, around and under the house and even curled up in a potted plant. Just be extra aware of their ability to camouflage themselves.

This year, the welcome rain has created a dense carpet of greenery and a profusion of gophers, the favored menu item for snakes. Where there are gopher holes, snakes could be lurking. Gopher holes can also offer passageway underneath “snake fencing.” Clearing all non-native grasses and overgrown vegetation is a good start.

For those who love to hike, staying on designated trails is a must and avoid night hikes or rides. Keep your dogs leashed and your eyes on the trail ahead. If your horse shows hesitation or acts nervously, give him the benefit of the doubt, and use strong lower leg wraps for added protection.

Rattlesnakes, like most wild creatures, are not looking for an encounter and will usually slither off to safety on feeling the vibration of approaching feet and paws. The heavy vibration made by horses makes them a little less prone, but not immune to bites. As with dogs, horses are most often bitten on the head, especially the nose. For either animal, head and torso bites are the most severe because the venom can more easily enter the bloodstream. Bites on the lower legs, primarily consisting of bone and tendon, are less dangerous.

Obviously, if you encounter a snake on a trail, unless there is ample room (three to four feet) to safely move past them, retreat. A mature snake will not attack unless provoked or threatened. Juvenile snakes are less predictable and more likely to strike repeatedly.

Regardless of how cautious and responsible you are, there is still always a risk. An antivenin inoculation is not in itself a preventive measure, but does help your animal develop anti-bodies that help neutralize and slow the immediate effects of a bite. It reduces risk of permanent injury and gives you more time to get to the nearest vet for full treatment before greater damage is done, especially to the organs. The purpose of a snake’s venom is to paralyze and thus immobilize its victim, commonly rodents and birds, for easier ingestion. Fortunately, 98 percent of dogs survive if the right protocol is taken.

Most veterinarians recommend two concurrent vaccines, a month apart, followed by an annual booster administered at the onset of Spring weather, to maximize the potency of the serum, which lasts for six months.

Treatment for a bite is costly, so think prevention. One vial of antivenin serum can be as much as $800. Several vials may be needed in addition to supportive care treatment, such as intravenous fluids, antibiotics, antihistamines and possibly blood transfusions. Variables include the size and age of the dog, the bite area and the amount of venom released.

Alternatively, if you are opposed to the toxicity of vaccines, you may want to spend some time researching homeopathic remedies and reading testimonials from people who have successfully used a combination of natural remedies to help control the effects of a bite in an emergency situation. For aftercare, but not as a substitute for a vet visit unless you are an experienced practitioner, these may include Lachesis, Hypericum, Ledum, Cedron, Echinacea and MSM.

Whether they have been vaccinated or not, if your companion animal does fall victim to a venomous snake bite, staying calm in any emergency is crucial, but preparedness is key. Follow these tips to prepare and care for your pet:

  • Check with your primary vet to ensure they carry the antivenin for treating a bite
  • Locate a 24-hour emergency clinic close to you, or where you hike or camp
  • Carry a pre-determined dosage of an antihistamine such as Benedril, or a homeopathic treatment kit, especially if you plan to be in a remote area
  • Extra measures might include keeping a stretcher in your car and/or at home for large dogs
  • In the event of a bite, carry your dog. Do not allow your animal to run or exert themselves; the higher the heart rate, the faster the venom circulates through the blood stream
  • Try to position your dog so the bite is below heart level
  • The American Association of Equine Practitioners advises riders to carry two six-inch pieces of garden hose to be lubricated, inserted and taped into the horse’s nostrils in case a head bite creates breathing problems, until a vet can treat the swelling.

For dogs, a more pro-active, and highly recommended approach is a Rattlesnake aversion class to train a dog to completely avoid confrontation. As with most training, periodic reinforcement is recommended.

The closest resource for Topanga is the Mountain Restoration Trust, which holds clinics in Calabasas and throughout L.A. County. The office is located at 23075 Mulholland Highway (at the intersection of Old Topanga Canyon Road), Calabasas CA 91302. To register for their Rattlesnake Avoidance Training Clinic for Dogs: or (818) 591-1701.


Local Resources for Rattlesnake Vaccinations & Aversion Classes

Rattlesnake Vaccines—$25-$45

Aversion Classes—$70-$125

Animal Clinic of Topanga—Vaccine Clinic second Wednesday of the month.

Malibu Coast Animal

Malibu Feed Bin—Vaccine Clinic first Saturday of the month, 3:30-5 p.m.

Calabasas Veterinary Center—Vaccine clinic every Saturday 1:30-3 p.m.

Capri Plaza Pet Clinic,

Rattlesnake Aversion;;

24-Hour Emergency Clinics

Access Animal Hospital—Woodland Hills

ASEC—West Los Angeles.



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Helen Storey is a writer (L.A Magazine, Los Angeles Times, etc.) who lives in Topanga with her husband and dogs. She has been an animal welfare advocate for more than 20 years, and is the founder of creatureKIND, a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and re-homing of companion animals.


By Helen Storey


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