Rattlesnake bite is a veterinary emergency. It results in serious injury, pain and sometimes death to thousands of dogs each year. Rattlesnake venom is a complex mixture of toxins that spreads through a dog’s body following the bite. Size and age of the rattlesnake and location of the bite on the dog determines the severity of the emergency. Baby rattlesnakes rarely control their venom flow, hence, a dog bitten by what might appear to be a small rattlesnake can actually do the most damage. Dogs are generally bitten in the face, neck, chest or front legs — if the bite causes swelling in the breathing passages death by asphyxiation can occur, if the bite occurs in a blood vessel the venom has a straight shot to the heart. Even if your dog survives the immediate effects of a rattlesnake bite, it can be permanently injured.

Rattlesnake vaccine may defend your dog by creating an immunity that works right away to help neutralize the toxins. This means that vaccinated dogs experience less pain, recover faster and usually don’t require the extreme measures that can include IV fluids, anti-venom injections, and hospitalization. Ark Animal Hospital in Alamogordo, New Mexico sees between 10 and 20 rattlesnake bite cases each year. Since beginning the rattlesnake vaccination program several years ago they have been impressed with the efficacy of the vaccine. Dogs who are not vaccinated generally suffer extreme pain and swelling, including sloughing of tissue and muscle. The recovery process sometimes takes weeks and the cost to treat runs close to $1000 and above. The dogs that have been vaccinated have noticeable less discomfort, do not require IV fluids or anti-venom, but are treated and released with oral anti-inflamatory and pain medication. Average cost to treat a dog who has been vaccinated: $75 – $140. Veterinarians in Arizona however are more skeptical as to the efficacy of the vaccine.

Beware of Rattlesnakes!Because the best protection from the vaccine is within the first 6 months following vaccination, the recommendation for year boosters is in the spring, March to April, prior to the time when rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation. The vaccine should be administered by itself, without other vaccinations. The only side effect occasionally noted is a slight bump at the vaccine site, which goes away within a week. The vaccine is primarily effective against the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake but is also helpful against other rattlesnake species. The cost of this vaccination is in line with most other vaccinations; check with your veterinarian.

Dogs can encounter a rattlesnake anytime they are in rattlesnake habitat. Perhaps you travel through or frequently visit places where rattlesnakes are found. Like people, dogs may stumble over the location of a snake by accident. Curiosity or a protective instinct can place your dog at risk. Some recent evidence, however, puts into question the efficacy of the vaccine. In some reported cases, there was no difference to the affected dog that had been given the vaccine as to the outcome of treatment. In other cases, dogs that did not receive the vaccine had positive outcomes from minimal veterinary care. The vaccine is not commonly available in veterinary clinics in urban areas. The jury still seems to be out on this subject.