Spring hadn't even clocked in a full week before two dogs belonging to friends of mine were bitten by rattlesnakes. Both dogs survived and will recover fully, but the pain was significant and so was the cost of treatment.
Fortunately, most snakes aren't all that interested in biting; they prefer to hide or skedaddle when faced with a threat. If they can't escape, they'll bite. That's when dogs typically get bitten: They put their noses where they don't belong, and instead of letting a snake slither away, they bother the reptile until it strikes.
Dr. Tony Johnson, a veterinarian specializing in emergency and critical care, spent part of his career practicing in the dry, brushy foothills of Northern California prime rattlesnake country. In his experience, terriers tended to be bitten more often than other dogs.
"It's almost always dogs and it's almost always terriers," he said. "Cats tend to be more cautious than dogs, and a terrier is more likely to put his nose where it will get him into trouble than many other dogs. And they don't learn from the experience."
What can you do to protect your dog? Here are some tips:
Keep your dog on leash if at all possible. While that's not possible for working dogs such as search-and-rescue or hunting dogs, it's likely the safest strategy for all others.
Work with your dog to ensure that he comes when called, so that if you hear or see a snake, you can get your dog away and give the snake room and time to escape.
Stay on established trails instead of hiking through areas where snakes can hide.
Don't allow your dog to burrow or otherwise try to tangle with wildlife. If he's looking for trouble, he may find it.
Consider snake-proofing. Many hunters take their dogs through clinics where professional trainers expose the animals to caged snakes and use electronic shock to establish a negative association. The clinics are controversial, however, because of the use of pain in teaching dogs to fear the reptiles. Balancing risk vs. benefit is an owner's judgment call.
Signs of a bite include puncture wounds from the fangs of the snake, bruising, blood and a rapid swelling as well as severe pain. If you suspect that your dog may have been bitten, end your outing and immediately get to a veterinarian and call ahead, if at all possible, so the veterinary team can prepare.
Your pet will need emergency veterinary care to address the immediate dangerous of swelling and pain as well as the longer-term challenges, such as dead tissue and infection. Most dogs survive a bite, especially with prompt veterinary care.
"There's nothing you can do in the field to help your dog," said Johnson, "certainly not cutting the wound or sucking the venom out. Just get to the vet."
It's worth asking your veterinarian about vaccines that protect dogs from the venom of some snakes. But really, if you're going to be hiking with your dog in areas that are perfect habitats for snakes, you'll need luck as well as precaution.
And, as always, know where to find a veterinarian when you have to, quickly.