What To Do If Your Dog is Bit By a Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are ubiquitous throughout North America. There are 36 separate species, and each carries both a rattle and a deadly venom that can incapacitate, and even kill humans and dogs. Rattlesnakes are an important part of the native ecosystem—without them, we would soon be overrun by rodents. But, they don’t always get along with us, or our canine companions. If you and your pet spend any time outdoors in rattlesnake country, then you should know what to do in case your dog is bit by a rattlesnake.

Unlike other North American snakes, rattlesnakes are actually members of the pit viper family. They’re known as pit vipers because of the pit-like indents near their nostrils. These pits actually allow rattlesnakes, and other kinds of pit vipers, to sense heat. So, no matter the time of day or night, rattlesnakes can see living creatures. Their vision isn’t great—it’s mostly based on movement. So, if you’re planning on taking your dog outdoors, you should consider getting your furry friend a rattlesnake venom vaccine.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at the effects of rattlesnake venom on dogs, and what you should do if your dog has been bitten by a rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes: Appearance and Location

closeup of mojave rattlesnake with shaking rattle
Rattlesnakes are easily recognized by the rattles at the tip of their tail.

©Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock.com

Rattlesnakes live as far north as Canada and as far south as Argentina. They can be found in deserts, swamps, shrublands, grasslands, and forests. No matter where you go, at least in the United States, chances are good there’s a rattlesnake living somewhere nearby. They’re most likely to come into contact with dogs and people in the summer months, from early spring to early fall. In the winter, most rattlesnakes go into a state of torpor called brumation; they’re not likely to bite you, or your dog, during this time.

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Rattlesnakes are best recognized by the rattles at the tips of their tails. They also have unique, triangular heads, and very large fangs. Their bodies are covered in alternating diamond markings, and they can grow up to eight feet long. Some of the most common species include the timber, prairie, and mojave rattlesnakes.

How to Avoid Rattlesnakes

If you’re planning on hiking in rattlesnake country, there are a few easy steps you can take to minimize your chances of encountering a rattler. First, keep you and your dog on trail. Rattlesnakes like to hide under bushes and rocks—an off-leash dog may poke their nose into the wrong spot and startle the rattlesnake into biting. 

You should also be mindful of rattlesnakes while you hike—you’ll generally hear them before you ever see them. If you hear a rattlesnake—even if you don’t see it—move yourself and your canine companion away from the sound. Use slow, careful movements, and do not attempt to approach any snake.

How Do You Know if Your Dog Was Bitten By a Rattlesnake?

Drooling dog
A dog bitten by a rattlesnake may develop aggressive behavior in response to the pain.

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Dogs are much more likely to get bitten by a rattlesnake than humans are. They’re most commonly bitten on their snouts, heads, and legs. Signs of a rattlesnake bite include two puncture wounds, acute swelling around the bite, excessive drooling or panting, wide, glassy, panicked eyes, restlessness, tenderness to touch at the wound site, and fearful, or even aggressive behavior in response to the pain.

Is There a Rattlesnake Vaccine for Dogs?

Yes, you can get your dog vaccinated against rattlesnake venom. This is an especially good idea if you live in a place where rattlesnakes are common, or if you plan on doing outdoor activities with your dog in rattlesnake country. Rattlesnake venom vaccine works by stimulating your dog’s body to produce antibodies to the venom, so that, when and if your dog is bit, the venom does not have as great of an effect on their system. Regardless of whether or not your dog is vaccinated, however, any snake bite warrants an immediate trip to the vet.

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How to Treat Rattlesnake Bite in Dogs

If you suspect that your dog has been bitten by a rattlesnake, get it to an emergency vet as quickly as possible. Keep the dog safe and still, and try to locate the bite and keep it below its heart. On your way to the vet, it’s a good idea to call the Pet Poison Hotline (1-800-213-6680) and consult an expert. 

Once you’ve gotten the dog away from the snake, remove anything that might constrict as swelling increases, like collars or harnesses. Then, get to the vet as quickly as possible. Most dogs survive rattlesnake bites, but only when treated by a veterinary professional. Vets will administer intravenous fluids, antibiotics, steroids, anti-inflammatories, or anti-venom, depending on the situation. 

Can a Dog Survive a Rattlesnake Bite Without Treatment?

If your dog is bit by a rattlesnake, the best option is to get it to an emergency vet as soon as possible. With treatment, most dogs survive rattlesnake bites. However, without treatment, the odds of survival decrease drastically. This is especially true for smaller dogs—the bigger the dog’s body mass, the better its chances of survival.

Without treatment, rattlesnake bites in dogs can easily become infected. But the bite itself isn’t the biggest problem, the venom is. Rattlesnake venom is extremely painful; the longer the dog goes without treatment, the worse the effects become. If your dog is bit by a rattlesnake, its best chance of survival is in immediate veterinary treatment.

Are Rattlesnakes Aggressive?

Rattlesnakes While HIking - Timber Rattlesnake

©Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com

Rattlesnakes are much more likely to bite dogs than humans, but why? The answer to this lies in the inquisitive nature of our canine companions. Dogs are low to the ground and like to poke around in bushes, grasses, and debris to find all the most interesting smells. Unfortunately, rattlesnakes don’t have the privilege of waiting around to see if a nosy dog is friendly or not. They won’t hunt dogs, or even come out into the open to attack them, but they all too often deliver a painful bite when the dog accidentally comes too close.

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