Dogs Learn a New Trick: Fear of Rattlers

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Snake-avoidance trainer Gina Gables and client. Photo courtesy of Ma & Paw Kennel Canine Training Services.

Arch Beach Heights resident Marc Wright’s Doberman Lefty didn’t even leave home and still suffered a life-threatening bite from a rattlesnake that slithered into the garden two years ago.

“It’s easy for dogs to stumble on a snake, even in the back yard,” said Laguna Beach’s senior animal services officer Joy Falk, who picks up dozens of rattlesnakes for every summer.

The angst of racing the clock to get Lefty to an urgent care facility for the life-saving antivenin, coupled with the $2,400 vet bill, prompted Wright to take action of a different sort this summer.

Now, thanks to a rattlesnake avoidance training clinic for dogs that he organized, owners of some of the town’s more than 5,000 dogs might avoid similar costly canine-snake encounters. The clinic at the Tar Farm Stables in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday, Aug. 28 is offered by Gina Gables of Ma & Paw Kennel Canine Training Services, with the help of Kent Beaman, a herpetologist at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

At $95 per animal for a session of 15 minutes or so, avoidance training is far cheaper than treating a bite, since a vial of antivenin alone runs about $800, and one vial may not be enough.

Dr. June Crook, a veterinarian at the Animal Urgent Care Clinic of South Orange County in Mission Viejo, which has treated upwards of 15 rattlesnake bite cases so far this year, said that most dogs respond well to treatment.

Dr. Gary Gauthier of Arch Beach Veterinary Clinic averages one rattlesnake-bit patient every two years. Dr. John Hamil at Laguna Canyon Animal Hospital has had one case so far this year. Both report favorable outcomes treating with antivenin.

Still, an undocumented number of dogs die from rattler attacks before reaching a treatment facility, especially from face bites, since swelling from the bite can obstruct airways and cause suffocation.

Even more alarming, local snakes’ venom is becoming more deadly, causing damage that is harder to effectively treat, Crook says. Indigenous snakes have a predominately hemotoxic venom that travels through the bloodstream, causing internal bleeding, swelling and intense pain, but Mojave Green rattlesnakes, indigenous to desert areas, have a deadlier, neurotoxic venom that acts on the central nervous system, as well as the flesh and fluids. Crook said experts attribute the higher level of neurotoxins in venom to either to hybridization or a genetic shift in local snakes.

Once bitten, a dog should be taken to a facility with antivenin as soon as possible, although in 20 percent of snake bites no venom is released at all, Crook said. Larger dogs generally require more of the antidote, but some survive without any, depending on their own immune system. Others die despite receiving treatment.

Avoidance remains the best prescription.

“Snakes want to avoid us,” said Beaman, the snake expert. Whether or not they strike depends on how threatened they feel.

He urges staying off trails when temperatures are favorable to snake activity, between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. At higher temperatures, snakes are inactive and will seek shade. To avoid surprising a sheltering snake, he advises keeping to open trails. Those whose homes are near the wilderness should keep their yard clear of debris that might provide cool refuge for a snake. Falk has even retrieved snakes from inside homes where doors have been left open.

Local dogs and their owners could benefit from rattlesnake avoidance training, say vets and Falk. Wearing a training collar with a range of stimulation levels, the dog is led through a course with live rattlesnakes, whose mouths are banded shut for safety, and taught to recognize them by sight, smell and sound, and to respond by avoiding them. Training is intended to trigger an avoidance reflex in dogs upon sensing a snake, because simply ignoring the reptile isn’t enough. If dogs remain within striking range, the snake may still feel threatened.

Some dog owners give their pets rattlesnake vaccinations, touted as a way to reduce the pain and risk of permanent injury from bites. Adherents, including some of Hamil’s clients, claim vaccinated dogs do exhibit a milder reaction to rattlesnake bites than unvaccinated ones. Even so, just as with the human controversy over vaccines, some owners believe their dogs suffer harmful side effects from the shots.

Gauthier cites findings by UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, which does not recommend the vaccine due to “insufficient information” regarding its efficacy in dogs.

Vaccination is no substitute for treatment, which should be sought as soon as possible after a bite, vets say. Snakebite symptoms include severe pain, swelling, and purple contusions around the wound. Unsure? Look for the two telltale fang marks.

Given the impact of avoidance training, a flourishing rattlesnake population and the high cost of treatment for bites, “in this community, we really should consider this a necessity,” said Wright.

The rattlesnake avoidance training Sunday, Aug. 28, at Tar Farm Stables, 28411 San Juan Creek Road, is an all volunteer effort. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Animal Crackers and Dobies SOS. To register, visit the Ma and Pa Kennel web site.

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