Rattlesnake Shake, or Vaccinating Your Dog Against Snakebite

When Matt was young, he had this annoying habit of catching garter snakes and bull snakes and then bringing them into the house. Amusing for him, yes, but not so much for me and mum. I’m not a big fan of things that slither and bite, and neither is she. Then there is Dad. One morning, mum got up to let all of the dogs back in the house. Ruby and Pearl made it into the house unscathed, but Lila leapt back after hearing the telltale rattle. Mum ran back to the bedroom, shrieking “Snake! SNAKE!” the entire way.

As she related the story for me over the phone, my response was, “Please tell me that dad remembered to remove the snake from the porch before smiting it.” (I had visions of them having to replace the entire front porch simply because Dad forgot to move the snake before blasting away with his trusty shotgun.)

Which brings us to a pitiful, puffy-nosed dog, who had a bit too much curiosity about things that do not want to be touched. Oh Badger, will you ever learn?

I think this is referred to as learning a lesson the hard way. However, a rattlesnake vaccine has been available for dogs since the early 2000s. Is this lesson still necessary?

Rattlesnake Vaccine

The rattlesnake vaccine is intended for use in healthy dogs to help decrease the severity of rattlesnake bites. If your dog is bitten, it will do three things: give you more time to get to a veterinary clinic for treatment, reduce the amount of pain and swelling your dog will experience, and provided that bite was not lethal, it will make recovery from the toxin a bit easier. The vaccine itself was developed specifically for the toxin of Crotalus atrox, the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, and it provides the best protection against the venom of that particular rattlesnake. It has been shown to provide cross-protection against the venom of other types of rattlesnakes and copperheads since the venom of pit vipers share some of the same toxic components, but it does not provide protection against the Mojave rattlesnake, cottonmouths, or coral snakes. However, depending on the location and severity of the rattlesnake bite, the vaccine will not prevent death in all cases.

The vaccine works by stimulating the dog’s immune system to produce antibodies against rattlesnake toxin. The antibodies are short-lived, and the vaccine typically provides protection for only six months. Booster shots are recommended annually one month before the onset of snake season, or twice yearly in areas where rattlesnakes are year-round risks. To provide initial immunization, the dog will need two doses one month apart and must be at least four months of age. It is important to keep in mind that no vaccine will ever provide 100% immunity, and dogs’ response to any vaccine varies. Some dogs produce large quantities of antibodies while some do not. Also, it does not provide equal protection against all rattlesnakes. With dogs that spend large amounts of time outdoors, it is not always known if or when a dog is bit, and with snake encounters, it is not always known what kind of snake bit the dog.

Helpful tip! The words antivenom, antivenin, and antivenene all mean the same thing: a biological product used in the treatment of venomous bites or stings. Antivenom is created by milking venom from the desired snake, spider, or insect. The venom is then diluted and injected into a horse, which is a common subject animal. The horse then undergoes an immune response to the venom and produces antibodies, which are harvested from the animal’s blood and used to treat animals that have been bit by that particular snake, spider, or insect. Antivenom works well, but allergies to equine-based serum can occur and are problematic. Additionally, antivenom can also be very expensive, and not all veterinarians have it on hand.

It should be noted that not all veterinarians will vaccinate dogs against rattlesnakes, mainly because there are questions about the vaccine’s efficacy against snake bite. When should you consider having your dog vaccinated against rattlesnakes?

  • If you live in an area where rattlesnakes are endemic, your dog should be vaccinated. This applies doubly if your nearest vet clinic is more than 30 minutes away.
  • If you are traveling to, hiking in, or camping in an area where rattlesnakes are endemic, your dog should be vaccinated.

The rattlesnake vaccine should not be used solely as a means of protection against rattlesnake bites, and it does not provide equal protection against all rattlesnakes. It is meant to provide some protection and to reduce the severity of the snakebite. Antivenom and other types of care may be recommended, even for vaccinated dogs. If your dog has been bitten by a rattlesnake, seek veterinary treatment immediately.

Snake Aversion/Snake Avoidance Training

This may sound like one of those yuppie things that we do in cities, and it likely is. However, as dogs generally have a curiosity about rather than a fear of snakes, it can be well worth teaching them to avoid snakes altogether. Trainers will often have a variety of snakes such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes, and so on that are either muzzled or have had their fangs removed. The point is to teach dogs to fear and avoid snakes by sight, smell, and sound. The more distance your dog places between itself and the snake, the odds of your dog being bit decrease exponentially.

This training can be a very good idea for hunting, bird, and stock dogs, but it is not for the faint of heart. As for me, my dogs are vaccinated, but I may also go ahead and do the snake-aversion training with both dogs. I love Eleanor and Beatrice, but they both have a whole lot of stupid when it comes to things that clearly do not want to be touched. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it will bite the heck out of a dog.

Poetry Corner

And because this is my blog and I love Emily Dickinson and I will seldom pass up a chance to share her work, I’ll close with one of her poems. Her closing line about “tighter breathing and zero at the bone” pretty much sum up how I feel when I see even the lowliest garter snake. I know they’re harmless, but I still shriek and seize up.

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your feet,
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn,
But when a boy and barefoot,
I more than once at noon
Have passed, I thought, a whip lash,
Unbraiding in the sun,
When stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.

Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality.
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

And for those of you still wondering, Dad did remember to move the snake from the porch before dispatching it to the great beyond. I think the hardest part for him was admitting to my mother that she was right about identifying that particular snake.

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