pi viper rattlesnake
Pit vipers are characterized by “pits” on the snake’s snout. These pits are used to detect heat.

Taking your furry friend with you on hikes is an excellent way to give your dog some exercise; however, there are plenty of dangers on the trail. This is especially true in areas that are known to have venomous snakes. The most common type of venomous snake in Colorado is the pit viper. These types of vipers can be identified by their triangular-shaped head, heat-sensing “pits” between the eyes and nose that help the viper sense heat, and retractable fangs. In Colorado, the most common type of pit viper is the Prairie Rattlesnake.

When hiking in Colorado, being aware of the risks of rattlesnakes is imperative for both you and your pet. To avoid being severely injured or killed by a venomous bite make sure you’re properly dressed. Wear closed-toe shoes, not sandals. It’s also a good idea to make yourself known. Use a walking stick or walk heavily, alerting the snake that you’re nearby. Snakes rarely seek out humans or larger animals like dogs. They often bite when they feel threatened or cornered. Often, you’ll warn you that they feel threatened by a rattling sound — click here to listen to an audio clip of what a rattlesnake sounds like.

Unfortunately, your dog doesn’t have those protections and can’t read the posted warnings often found in venomous snake-infested areas. The first step in maintaining your dog’s safety in rattlesnake country is knowing the signs of a snake bite.

snake envenomation treatment
click to view a high-resolution version of this graphic.

Has You Dog Been Bitten By A Rattlesnake?

wear proper hiking gear in rattlesnake country
FACT: Did you know that there are 26 subspecies of rattlesnakes in the United States, all of which are common throughout the country?

If your dog suddenly cries out in pain and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious cause, they may have been bitten. Look for the fang marks if you can—two holes side by side. These holes might not be immediately apparent. Dogs are commonly bitten on the face or front legs so inspect those areas closely. If you notice swelling of any kind and significant pain, you will need to act swiftly.

If you suspect your dog has been bitten, rush her to the emergency room. With modern veterinary medicine, the mortality rate from rattlesnake bites has fallen to less than one percent, but time is of the essence. The vets will administer IV fluids, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and pain medication to treat the bite. The Emergency Room doctor will also administer antivenom to stop the effects of the snake venom running through your dog’s veins, which can cause organ failure and paralysis.

Sometimes a snakebite won’t result in envenomation, but it’s impossible to tell right away. Snake venom usually affects the heart and lungs, as well as the nervous system and the ability of the blood to clot properly. Look for other symptoms such as low blood pressure or signs of shock, lethargy or muscle weakness, muscle tremors and spasms, vomiting, and a slow respiratory rate. It’s always the right call to get your dog to a vet immediately if you think she’s been bitten.

What To Do If Your Dog Has Been Bitten By A Rattlesnake

In the moments after the snakebite, there are a few things to avoid when getting him or her to the emergency room:

  • A tourniquet. Unless you’re many miles away from a vet, a tourniquet is not necessary. There’s a fine line between a too-loose and a too-tight tourniquet. If you don’t have training in this treatment, it’s easy to cause more harm than good.
  • By the time the venom enters the dog’s bloodstream, applying ice to the wound won’t do anything to slow its spread.
  • Cutting the wound open. Don’t try to cut the wound open to release the venom. This rarely helps release the venom before it gets into your dog’s bloodstream. Again, it could cause more harm than good.

treating dogs for rattlesnake venom

Here are a few things you can do for your dog after a snakebite that will help veterinarians, besides immediately taking her to the emergency room:

  • Don’t panic. Your dog will pick up on that energy and it will inhibit you from making good decisions.
  • Try to find all bite wounds. Look for small puncture wounds, bleeding, bruising, and swelling.
  • If the bite is on the leg or foot, immobilize the leg by wrapping it in a towel or bit of clothing.
  • Carry your dog to the car. Body movement will help spread the venom throughout the body faster.
  • Administer Benadryl or other antihistamine to calm the dog and help reduce allergic reaction and swelling. Usually a dose of one milligram per pound of body weight is enough.

Venomous snake bites can be very dangerous and frightening, but if you follow this guide and rush your dog to the nearest emergency vet, she will have a very high chance of surviving without permanent damage.