I have a three-year-old German Shorthair Pointer, and he was bitten in the chest by a Western Diamondback rattlesnake earlier this year. It was a truly horrible experience, and I wanted to share some thoughts and tips with other dog owners.
I consistently walk my dog on a leash, and this time was like any other as he was on an extended leash allowing him to roam perhaps 10 feet away from me as I rode my bicycle along a trail in a mountain preserve near my home in Arizona. It was late February and the morning had been fairly cold. I have lived in Arizona nearly all my life and have only ever seen two snakes in the wild.
Regardless, I am always vigilant to keep myself and my dog safe from any sort of catastrophe. In this instance, my system failed me. Since the morning had been cold, I was not on particular guard for rattlesnakes as we walked along the path. But about 200 yards in on the trail, my dog dipped his head behind a large boulder only feet from me reappearing with a 3 foot rattlesnake dangling from his mouth. This all happened in milliseconds. He picked up the snake mid-body, and it looked like a reptilian Fu Man Chu mustache hanging down from both sides of his mouth. I instantly gave the command “drop it”. The dog complied and ran over to my side. Since I heard no yelp, I was unsure if he had been bitten. Just to be sure, I inspected his face, chest, legs, and paws, and found no puncture marks. Regardless, I decided to take him back to the trailhead so he walked along with me back down the trail.
Soon I noticed him favoring a leg, and upon inspection of his chest he had some immediate swelling about the size of a silver dollar that was very tender to the touch. Unfortunately, we were about 2 miles away from my home so I left him with a friend as I rode my bicycle home to retrieve a vehicle. He had surely been bitten and now the next step was to get him to emergency care. We arrived at the emergency veterinary clinic, and they immediately gave him snake antivenin, antibiotics and fluids. Although he was very stiff-legged and obviously in pain, the vet said it looked as though it may have only been a grazing bite, as he presented minimal symptoms. That turned out not to be the case.
After nearly $3000 spent at the clinic, they released him that evening to come home with me where I could watch him over the next few days. I have known other people who have had a dog bitten by a rattlesnake, and they had cautioned me about the pain the animal goes through. However, I was certainly unprepared for what was about to come. Over the next 10 days, this poor dog could literally not lift himself from his bed. Since the wound was on his chest, it was very painful for him to lay down as dogs normally do. His appetite was nonexistent, and I had to hand feed him water from a plastic squeeze bottle while he lay on his side. I had to lift him as you would a small lamb to take him outside a few times a day so he could do his business.
Since rattlesnake venom is an anticoagulant that also contains a digestive enzyme, the wound not only seeps blood continually but the tissue around the puncture dies and eventually falls off. This makes it very difficult to try to stitch the wound and you literally have to let the venom take its course, which seemingly takes forever.The good news is he was again walking (unsteadily) by himself after 10 days, and we applied antibiotic ointment to his then 4 inch diameter open wound throughout the coming weeks. He was back to normal activity approximately 8 weeks after the bite, and shows no ill effects other than a pretty garish scar on his chest. He romps and plays like normal once again.
The tips I would give other dog owners would be remaining vigilant over your dog even when on a leash. I believed I was doing all that was possible, but it only took milliseconds for my dog to have a near-death experience. The other tip I would give any other dog owner whose pooch walks with them in the woods or desert would be to have the dog snake trained. I am not quite sure that I believe the complete effectiveness of snake training in that I do not believe it completely negates the chance of having your dog bitten, but at least it will give the dog some familiarity with the sight, sound, and scent of a rattlesnake to let him know it is not just another stick laying on the ground that he can retrieve and bring back to his owner. Since dogs can move over ground quickly and really surprise a snake, do your best to shuffle your feet and thump the ground from time to time when in snake country. The snake wants an encounter less than you do, and if you give him the opportunity, he’ll find cover and stay away from you.
Best of health to you and your pet.