Cottage Q&A: Dog is bitten by a rattlesnake

A massasauga rattlesnake, coiled in the sand By Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock

What do I do if my dog is bitten by a rattlesnake?—Archie Smith, Georgian Bay, Ont.

Drop everything and get to the nearest vet. It doesn’t matter if the practice carries antivenin or not. It probably won’t. Snake antivenin is expensive and difficult to source because it’s so complicated to produce in the first place.

But here’s the thing: snake venom is dangerous because it disrupts normal blood clotting. “And any regular clinic will be able to run baseline blood work, do a ‘coagulation profile,’ and start supportive care,” says Alexandra Parry, a vet with O’Sullivan Animal Hospital in Barrie. The vet can then determine if the dog even needs antivenin. It might not. It’s situation dependent: a bite to the tongue is worse than a bite to the torso—there’s a faster uptake of venom because the tongue is a better “absorption surface,” says Parry—and a venomous bite to a small breed will have more of an effect than a bite to a large breed. Snake venom is meant to kill snake prey. In cottage country, that’s mice, not Labradoodles.

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Even if you knew a vet clinic, say, two hours away carried antivenin, it would be better to take the dog to a clinic that didn’t carry it if you could get there in minutes, say our experts. Why? In many cases, bites are dry. Rattlesnakes don’t inject venom every time they bite, says Jeff Hathaway, the founder of Scales Nature Park, a conservation centre that focusses on amphibians and reptiles. “Venom is energetically expensive for snakes to manufacture. If they use it, they risk depleting their supply. And they need that supply to eat,” he says. “It’s not adaptive for them to expend all their venom.”

Here’s the good news. Rattlesnake bites—to dogs or people—are rare in Canada. O’Sullivan Animal Hospital does carry antivenin, because “we were seeing enough cases that we felt it was worth it,” says Parry. But “enough cases” only amounts to a couple of bites per summer. 

Still, if you’re hiking in rattler-heavy areas, keep Fido on a leash. Better for the dog, better for the snake. 

15 surprising facts about Canada’s snakes

This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of Cottage Life.

Got a question for Cottage Life’s Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

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