Encounters with rattlesnakes in Ontario are rare, but due to careful stewardship the endangered Massasauga Rattlesnake is recovering and re-populating areas of Ontario, including Georgian Bay, the Bruce Peninsula, parts of Muskoka, and parts of southern Ontario. Generally rattlesnakes lie still and rattle if you come too close. Given space they will leave the area fairly quickly, and a human-rattlesnake conflict is easily avoided. Dogs are another story. Dogs roam through off-path areas and fields away from human activity, which makes them much more likely than you to encounter a rattlesnake. As well, if your dog does encounter a snake of any sort, he or she is very likely to be curious about this new creature, and to engage with it, either out of curiosity or in challenge.
Any rattlesnake bite is an extremely serious injury. Dogs are sometimes bitten on the legs, but more often on the snout or head as they investigate the snake, or as it strikes at them. Bites to the head, especially on small dogs are particularly serious because the venom and swelling can quickly impair their breathing by cutting off the nasal and tracheal air passages.
What to Do
If you think your dog may have been bitten:
Watch for symptoms that may include swelling, pain, and discomfort. These symptoms may occur immediately, or may not show for up to two hours.
Seek IMMEDIATE veterinary attention. DO NOT DELAY going to the nearest vet. Do not wait for “morning”, “the end of the weekend”, or your “regular” vet. Immediate treatment may be the key to your dog’s survival.
Follow these guidelines while you transport your pet:
- Keep your dog calm and do not allow him or her to move around. If they have been bitten on a leg, splint the leg if you can, and keep the leg below the dog’s heart level as you carry him or her.
- DO NOT let the Dog walk! Carry him or her, in a basket or using a blanket as a stretcher, if necessary.
- DO NOT use tourniquets, ice or suction on the injury.
Even venomous snakes do not always inject venom into the wound when they bite.
The veterinarian will first asses whether the dog has in fact been envenomated, and if so to what extent. In mild cases, the veterinarian may only give the dog painkillers. In serious cases, the vet will administer fluids to restore blood pressure, and will inject epinephrine or corticosteroids and antihistamines to treat allergic reaction and swelling.
Anti-venom is rarely given to dogs except in very serious cases, mainly because there is a good chance of recovery without the administration of anti-venom, and the anti-venom has a risk of allergic reaction. As well, the use of anti-venom is also limited by its prohibitive costs–up to five vials may be required to treat most cases.
For maximum safety, it’s always best to keep your dog on leash at all times, particularly in areas where there are known Massasauga Rattler sightings. Dog’s natural curiosity puts them at risk if they are unsupervised.
Learn to identify any local snakes so that you can be knowledgeable about what type of snake has bitten your pet. There are many similar looking harmless snakes in the same areas as rattlesnakes. Use guidebooks and websites, or inquire if your cottage’s association has any workshops on species identification.