Some Truths about Rattlesnakes (and myth debunking…..)

Some Truths about Rattlesnakes (and myth debunking…..)

Acquaintances of ours were over at our house the other night and when they asked if we wanted to see a photo of the rattlesnake they found on their property,  I thought to myself  ‘they probably killed it.’ Yep, they did. It was a good 4-plus feet long, so likely had lived many years of its 25 year lifespan in the wild canyon that is off one side of their property.

While I’ve encountered few rattlesnakes on my various hikes, we have encountered over a half dozen on the 3 acre canyon property we lived on in San Diego County.

Except for the concern for our dog, we didn’t mind them around because:

rattlesnakes consume mice, rats, small birds and other small animals. By limiting the size of rodent populations, they play an important ecological role.

  • We know they rarely attack or are aggressive. Only once on a hike a rattler didn’t do their usual – moving way we left the area.
  • If they were small and near our house, my husband used a long stick to usher them into a big container before relocating them down the canyon. (See photo/story of one example)

My personal opinion: If you choose to live in a home on the edge of natural areas, or hike in those areas, learn to live with the others who make it their home.

I checked this write-up with a rattlesnake expert, William Hayes, PhD of Loma Linda University. If you find a rattlesnake or a venomous snake on your property, or on a hike:

  • Use common sense, move away from it, and it often leaves the area. If you want it removed, call your local fire department. At least in Southern California, they will remove and relocate them.
  • If you get bit, get to the hospital immediately. Dr. Hayes said that no one really knows for sure, but the current estimate is about 3500 to 4000 in the U.S get bit by rattlesnakes. The approximate five that die occurred between 6 and 48 hours after the bite.  If anti-venom treatment is given within 1–2 hours of the bite, the probability of recovery is greater than 99%. (Wikipedia, but verified by Hayes)
  • If your dog gets bit (sorry, don’t know about cats… but 150,000 dogs is one annual estimate)  I’ve heard many dogs, including a springer spaniel my husband had that was bit on the face, survive without treatment, but some don’t. One website, Tenaker Pet Care Center said getting bit in eye, mouth, ear area, or chest is more serious because of the closeness to numerous blood vessels and major organs.
  • Get your dog snake-trained. A friend called it very effective, saying it allows dogs to get close to the trainer’s snakes in outdoor situations, “then they give them correction (a tiny shock from a collar).  The dog associates the shock with the scent as the nose rules!”
  •  If you take your dog to the vet, prepare for a high vet bill. An anti-venom injection can cost $700-800, and if hospitalized, the bill can add up to $1500 to 2000.
  • If you live in rattlesnake country, consider a vaccination  (Link to www.redrockbiologics.com/rattlesnake_vaccine_for_dogs.php  ) Most vets recommend them, usually they involve two  injections six months apart, followed by an annual booster  (prices vary but I’ve seen $30 or so for one injection,  much less than an anti-venom injection)

Rattlesnake Myth Debunking

Two myths Dr. Hayes encouraged me to help correct:

It is NOT true that baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adult rattlesnakes.

According to Hayes this well-entrenched myth originated in the 1970s. Reality: There is no published data to suggest that baby rattlers inject more venom or that they lack control of how much venom they expend. (One juvenile snake study showed they are capable of controlling their venom.) Rather, studies published in scientific journals show adult snakes have much more venom in their glands and inject much more.  (How Dangerous Are Baby Rattlesnakes? – PDF 1.5 MB)

It is NOT true that rattlesnake venoms are rapidly evolving to become more toxic.

I remember hearing this one about a year ago – Hayes said reports have incorrectly claimed that rattlesnake bites in southern California, Arizona and Colorado have become more severe as their venom has evolved to become ‘supertoxic.” (Sensationalistic Journalism and Tales of Snakebite – PDF 284 kb)

However, the Boy Scout advice to wear long pants IS true. Hayes found the average amount of venom injected was one-third the amount in a human model wearing long pants versus a bite on a bare leg. (Denim Clothing Reduces Venom Expenditure by Rattlesnakes – PDF 280 kb)

Other Resources:

Biologyof theRattlesnakes.com

William K Hayes, PhD – whayes@llu.edu  Phone 909-558-4300 (ext 48911)

Photo at the top of this page is of a juvenile Western Rattlesnake that my husband relocated down the canyon by putting it in this tall garbage can liner. I insisted he go with his fresh lizard kill, which is what we first noticed outside our door. We emptied both out together and when I went back an hour later to check, the snake – and his lizard – were gone.

About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.

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