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Beware the bite: rattlesnake season slithers into San Diego

By The Health News Team | May 4, 2022
Pet owner walking their dog

It’s rattlesnake season. And while rattlers play a vital role in the population control of small rodents, their venomous bites can be dangerous to those that tread on their territory, including humans and their pets.

"Spring and summer are official snakebite seasons," says Dr. Julie Phillips, an emergency medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "And when the weather heats up, snakebites are seen more frequently in the emergency room.”

Although generally not aggressive, rattlesnakes will strike when threatened or deliberately provoked. In fact, the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation reports bites usually occur when someone is trying to pick up, tease or kill a snake. When provided an escape route, most rattlesnakes would choose to escape rather than strike.

While approximately 25% of snakebites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected during a bite (known as envenomation), emergency treatment is required immediately after any bite, regardless of the type of snake. “Knowing the type of snake is useful when seeking treatment, but not a requirement," Dr. Phillips says.

What to do if you are bitten by a snake
If you've been bitten by a rattlesnake, Dr. Phillips says you must call 911 immediately. Even if it is unclear whether there was venom injected during the bite, call paramedics or go directly to the ER for an evaluation.

A bite from a venomous snake can cause a serious allergic reaction, resulting in anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms can include:

  • Swelling of the face or throat

  • Shortness of breath within minutes

  • Swelling, blisters and purple discoloration around the bite site

  • A metallic taste in your mouth

  • Dizziness

  • Vomiting

Dr. Phillips offers these important tips if you or a loved one are bitten by a snake:

  • DON'T try to suck out the venom or cut the bite open.

  • DON'T apply a tourniquet, which can cause more damage.

  • DON’T ice the wound.

  • DO stay calm and hold the extremity as still as possible, below the heart.

  • DO call 911 or go directly to the ER.

  • DO wash the skin with soap and water, if available, or use an antiseptic wipe.

  • DO remove watches, rings and other jewelry in case of swelling.

"We do bloodwork and look for signs of envenomation," says Dr. Phillips. “If antivenom medication is administered, the patient is watched carefully and an overnight stay is required.”

Keep your pets safe from rattlesnake bites
It’s not just yourself and other people in your family you should worry about. Your fur babies are at risk of rattlesnake bites, too. Through a review of data gathered across the country, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found there may be more than 100,000 venomous snakebites that occur in dogs and cats every year.

Take the following precautions to help your pets avoid a rattlesnake encounter:

  • Keep your cat indoors

  • Regularly check for snakes in your yard, garage and other areas around your home where your pets spend time

  • Maintain your yard so that it is less rattlesnake-friendly

  • Keep your dog on a leash and monitor them while on walks

  • Prevent your dog from putting their face into heavy brush or rock crevices where snakes may be lurking

  • Stay on well-worn trails so you can see what’s ahead

If you plan to have your dog off leash in an area where venomous snakes are found, the ASPCA encourages you to consider signing up for snake avoidance training. There is also a rattlesnake vaccine available for cats and dogs, which causes your pet’s immune system to form antibodies that bind up venom, reducing the harmful effects. While vaccination does not prevent the necessity for emergency care after a snakebite, it does provide time to safely get to a veterinary hospital for treatment.

If your pet is bitten by a rattlesnake, get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. It is important to know which vets in your area keep antivenom, also known as antivenin, in stock. Your pet will also be treated with IV fluids and medication, and most will recover if appropriate treatment is promptly provided.

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