Think of the Arizona desert, and the first things that come to mind are probably heat, saguaro cactus―and rattlesnakes.
As the saying goes, practically everything in the desert will “stick you, sting you, bite you or burn you.” But for newcomers to the Southwestern desert, the scariest hazard is probably the rattlesnake: that fearsome serpent that lies in wait, coiled under the nearest prickly pear, ready to strike at anyone who comes near.
The reality is that rattlesnakes aren’t nearly as dreadful as their reputation suggests. Most snakes seem to want to avoid confrontations just as much as humans do, and experts say that, for most rattlesnake encounters, we’ll never even know they happened. In 95% of cases we walk right by a rattlesnake without even realizing it’s there. About two to three hundred people do get bitten by rattlesnakes in Arizona each year, but fatalities are very rare.
However, for dogs, snake bites are more common and more threatening. There are no statistics for the number of dogs that are bitten or killed by snakes in Arizona, but it’s easy to imagine that the numbers are high. One estimate says that a pet bitten by a rattlesnake is 25 times more likely to die than a human. (Being smaller than humans by weight, a dog or cat is more likely to be killed by the same amount of venom.) Snake bites can also cause permanent organ, brain, and joint damage.
Local veterinarian Dr. Jeffrey Eubank, of Samaritan Veterinary Center in Globe, says he’s already seen his first case of snakebite this year, when a ranch dog was brought in last week. The owners got the Lab into Eubank’s clinic within an hour and a half of the incident, and he was able to treat the dog with fluids and anti-venom and send him home, Eubank says.
In other cases, the victims have not been so lucky. One poor dog was bit on the underbelly and required a large skin graft and months of recovery. As this example makes clear, the location of a snake bite is important. The “best” place to be bitten is in the leg or face, because these areas can swell enough that the venom tends to stay more or less in that same location without spreading. On the other hand, a bite to the main part of the body is often lethal, because the venom can quickly affect vital organs.
“Every case is different and every snake bite is different,” says Eubank—starting with the bite itself.
Not every bite is venomous, Eubank explains, and some bites are not as bad as others. The age, attitude and intent of the snake at the time of the encounter can make a difference. Unless you really manage to anger a snake, most of them simply want to be left alone and have you back off. You can’t always explain this in logical terms to a dog, though—hence the reason that more dogs than humans get bit.
It is a fact that a pissed-off snake will release more venom than one that is simply trying to defend his turf. And a young rattlesnake may release more venom because he hasn’t learned the art of “less is more.”
And then, for the truly lucky dog or human, there are “dry bites.”
In a dry bite, the snake doesn’t release any venom at all. Maybe he just bit somebody else a few minutes ago, or maybe he wanted to say “back off” in a nice way. In any case, these bites roughly account for 20 to 30 percent of all bites. And as Eubank notes, it’s fairly easy to determine if this is the case.
“A venomous bite,” Eubank says, “will be exquisitely sensitive to the touch, and there will be a good deal of swelling around the bite area.”
In contrast, he says, “a dry bite will not have the same swelling and sensitivity.”
“If people call me and they aren’t sure, I’m pretty sure it’s a dry bite, because otherwise they would know.”
Eubank adds, “I still like to see them in the clinic, though, because there are other issues that could cause a problem with a bite like that. Infection, for one.” Snake bites are dirty.
Perhaps the best “insurance” that dog owners can purchase is to vaccinate their pets each year. Snakebite vaccine is effective in reducing the potency of a bite by “binding” the venom and not allowing it to spread through the body
In doing so, the vaccine gives the owners more time to get their pet to the clinic, and it helps the animal recover faster.
Eubank says he vaccinates between 400 and 500 dogs annually. Considering the potential cost of treating a snake bite (up to thousands of dollars, and weeks or months of recovery), a $40 vaccine seems to be a wise investment for most pet owners.
Interestingly, there is not a vaccine for cats―or humans.
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.