Rattlesnake Bite! A Camping Trip With Our Dogs Goes Sideways

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What do you do if your dog is bitten by a rattlesnake?
•Recognize it immediately as a life-threatening emergency that requires professional help.
•Keep your dog calm to slow the venom’s spread through the blood and organs.
•Don’t touch the wound, apply a tourniquet or (for god’s sake) try to suck it out.
•Call the closest emergency vet, tell them you’re coming in with a rattlesnake bite, and confirm they have enough antivenin in stock for your dog’s weight.
•Get there as quickly as you safely can; minutes matter.

It happens in an instant. We stop the van on a remote forest road and let the dogs out to stretch their legs. Nose-to-the-ground hound dog Scooby investigates every rock and clump of grass near the van, then meanders over to a thickly coiled rope a dozen feet from our tires. The rope fires off a sharp warning rattle. Scooby recoils, terrified. Good dog, Scooby.

Unfortunately, innocent Greenland street dog Molly (she’d never seen a tree until she was three, let alone a reptile) gaily hurries over, tail wagging, to investigate. BAM! Molly yelps, backpedaling frantically. Blood drips from two deep punctures in her muzzle.

In that moment, I could hardly believe what had just happened. My husband Eric and I are wildlife biologists who study polar bears. We spend months every year working in dangerous conditions on the sea ice above the Arctic Circle. We routinely prepare for every eventuality.

Jet fuel deposited a year ahead of time? Check. Spare helicopter pilot lined up? Check. Satellite phone, rifle, morphine? Check, check, check. We expect the Arctic to be dangerous. Here, now, intent on a respite from the grind of urban life in a pandemic, we are taken totally by surprise.

But fortunately, we’re not helpless. We have, as I later learn from venomous snake expert Stephen Spear, the two most important first-aid items necessary when someone (or somedog) is bitten by a venomous snake: car keys and a cell phone.

I rummage hastily for the Ziplock bag I’d labeled DOG ER. Would two Benadryl at least sedate Molly, prevent a histamine response or buy us time? I hope so. Now we frantically scoop both dogs and our gear into the van and begin the bone-juddering, 70-minute, pedal-to-the-metal drive down a bumpy forest road to the nearest vet.

West of the Cascades, Eric and I live in a pleasant outdoor world of non-extremes. No heatwaves, hurricanes, grizzly bears or disease-carrying ticks. Our biggest complaint? Too many cloudy days. But travel 100 miles east to the drier parts of the state where many Washingtonians go to camp, fish and hike, and we’re in rattlesnake country.

As increasing numbers of people and their pets escape the city during Covid-19 and head east, being aware of rattlesnakes and where you’re likely to run across one, and knowing what to do if you encounter one, could save your dog’s life. Or your own.

Rattlesnakes are marvels of natural engineering. They hunt rodents and other small prey using sight, scent, vibrations and specialized heat-sensing organs located in holes in their faces called pits (as in, “pit vipers”). Scary reputation notwithstanding, most rattlers are of defensive temperament.

They prefer to avoid bigger animals, including us, and, with their unmistakable percussive rattle, offer interlopers ample time to back off. When a nosy dog gets too close, well, it’s not the fault of the snake, who’s just trying to do what it does best: survive.

Rattlesnakes live throughout central and eastern Washington. Identification is easy because we only have one kind: the Northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), a subspecies of the Western rattlesnake. Color and markings may vary, but if it has a rattle on its tail, it’s a rattlesnake (worth noting: there are look-alikes, but without rattles). The genus name, Crotalus, means “little bell” in Greek.

Northern Pacific rattlesnakes favor warm, south-facing slopes within a few kilometers of the rocky areas where they den, sometimes by the hundreds. They are generally found at low elevations and are active between April and September. (If you really want to nerd out, check this analysis of the distribution of rattlesnakes on Washington’s Columbia River plateau.)

Eric and I are members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Polar Bear Specialist Group, one of many groups of experts around the world who focus on a single species, or group of species. So, when I decided to nerd out myself, I called an expert from the Viper Specialist Group.

Venomous-snake biologist Stephen Spear has been fascinated by venomous snakes his whole life. Our specialty, polar bears, are iconic, charismatic predators and we usually take people’s interest in them for granted. But why snakes, I asked? “I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog,” Steve says. As a kid, when other children crowded around the lion enclosure, he officially “adopted” the copperhead at the local zoo.

I email Steve a photo I’d hastily snapped of Molly’s nemesis. “That’s a nice-sized snake,” he observes dryly. Indeed. From the scientific literature, I’d learned that you can estimate the size of a snake by measuring the inter-fang distance. Or, in Molly’s case, the distance between the fang-holes in her face.

This made sense to me, as I’d once determined that a polar bear had been tusked in the head by a walrus using a similar metric. The inter-fang distance of 25 mm on Molly’s muzzle suggested a very large Northern Pacific rattlesnake. They can grow up to five feet in length.

It’s a myth, Spear tells me, that small or juvenile snakes are more deadly, or are less able to meter their venom release. The larger the snake, the greater the venom capacity. Hence the inter-fang metric, which was partly developed for the medical community treating snake bites. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the southeastern U.S. is the largest rattler in the world, and its bite is extremely dangerous primarily because of its size and venom capacity.

The way snake venom acts depends on the species. The venom of many rattlesnake species is necrotizing; it digests the flesh around the bites (and later, inside the body). Cobra venom, in contrast, acts on the nervous system as a paralytic, shutting down breathing. However, some rattlesnakes have evolved to have venom like a cobra because they prey on fast-moving lizards.

Snakes don’t waste their venom—it takes energy to make it, and time to restock it—so some defensive rattlesnake bites are “dry.” Molly’s was not. Her face swelled up within 30 minutes, despite my Hail Mary application of Benadryl.

But Molly is relatively young and healthy and, thanks to our cell phone (calling in advance to make sure they had the antivenin in stock) and Eric’s ace ambulance driving, we got her to the emergency vet in Yakima in one hour. That she’d been bitten on the face was a good thing, the vet tells us; legs are good, too (relatively speaking). The tongue and torso are much worse places to be bitten because they have greater blood flow.

Molly was hospitalized overnight and administered antivenin (also called antivenom) through an IV. Within 24 hours, she was headed home with us, in pain, swollen, sick and shaky—but alive. We were lucky.

What should the public know about rattlesnakes, I asked Dr. Spear, other than that they may bite? Well, he said, the chances of running across one are low. Even scientists looking for them have a hard time finding them.

A warming climate could change this, however. As elevated temperatures become more common, rattlesnakes are expected to spend more months out of their den and be active for longer periods during the day.

Finally, he said, “It’s a hard life, being a rattlesnake. We should have some empathy. They are extraordinarily patient—sitting in a coil waiting for something to come by, for hours and even days.”

Molly’s face has returned to normal and she’s generally back to her frisky self. But let the bedroom fan rattle and she’s quivering under the bed in a flash. Will this new fear translate to a healthy aversion to snakes? Let’s hope so.

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