Last Spring my brother-in-law Bill was two miles along his favorite hiking trail at Granite Dells in Prescott when a frantic woman ran up to him. She thrust a convulsing poodle into his arms. The unfortunate dog had been bitten by a Western Diamondback rattler on the trail. The poodle became limp in his arms before they reached her car. It was dead.
I was one step away from putting my leg by an active baby rattler on the shady path up to the cave at Sayers Spring off Constellation Road, until I heard its rattled warning.
Finally, my husband encountered a black rattlesnake guarding the entrance to an adit in the Bradshaws off Senator Highway. Most of these encounters occurred mid-morning or late afternoon, though we’ve seen large “coon-tail” rattlers,(Diamondbacks), some five feet long, in warm mid-day sun in San Domingo Wash, east of Wickenburg.
You also have probably seen/heard about/photographed rattlesnake encounters! A rattlesnake is technically a “pit viper”, which means it has a small pit between the nostril and eye on each side of the head. The bite of the Pit Viper is a lightning-like strike, usually on the legs or hands, as the snake injects venom from two fangs in the forward portion of the upper jaw. These fangs leave two distinctive puncture wounds at the point of entry. Rattlers use the “loreal pit”, a heat-sensing organ between the nostril and the eye, to locate prey and potential predators and any threatening animal like you or your pet. Their glands make venom, much like your saliva glands make saliva. The rattle is made of keratin, the same material found in your hair and fingernails, and the age of a rattler can’t be determined by counting the segments of its rattle!
According to information on a colorful poster available from the BLM, there are at least 13 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona. A total of 36 rattlesnake species are found living only in North and South America. A free booklet, available from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, “Arizona Wildlife Amphibians and Reptiles”. has sketches and information about 12 snakes, 8 of which are non-poisonous. Of the 13 venomous rattlesnakes found in Arizona, 5 definitely may be found near Wickenburg. An excellent website, www.reptilesofaz.org, offers color photos and information on snakes, reptiles, and amphibians found in Arizona. The snakes most often seen in the Wickenburg area are:
- Poisonous: Mohave (the most deadly), Western Diamondback, Sidewinder, and Black-tailed rattlesnakes. You may also encounter a Black rattlesnake and Speckled Rattlesnake.
- Non-poisonous: Gopher snake (tragically often mistaken for a rattlesnake), Rosy Boa, common Kingsnake, and Coachwhip.
Rattlesnakes serve an important role in desert ecology, with their diets (varying by species) of primarily lizards, centipedes, rodents, small mammals, birds, small-sized snakes, spiders, and sometimes carrion. A friend sent a photo of a rattlesnake eating a small rabbit! They can also be food for hawks, owls, roadrunners, and other predators, depending on size. I have talked with people who have eaten rattlesnakes meat and claim it tastes somewhat like bony chicken. There was a small business near Tombstone, Arizona where the owners made wallets, pendants, etc. from cured rattlesnake skins. Unless you or your pet are threatened by a snake (which will often slither away and hide when threatened instead of blindly striking), please don’t wantonly kill it just because it’s a rattlesnake. We often slow down to allow snakes to cross the road, if safe for us to do so.
Avoiding Unpleasant Rattlesnake Experiences
Here are some tips for avoiding unpleasant encounters with rattlesnakes while hiking, horseback riding, or camping in the Wickenburg area:
- Be aware of your surroundings and preferred snake habitat. Snakes seek cover in rocks, brush, cool dark spots during the heat of mid-day. They often emerge mid-morning and late afternoon. Dens may be in mine adits, small caves, amid piles of rocks, or under brush piles, or in cavities in washes. Look and listen before you walk near their habitat or put your hands or feet up on rocky paths or climbing areas. We (my husband Ed and I), while hiking out to lava caves in S.E. Oregon, have seen a rattler coil and began rattling only after several people had walked past its hiding place in rocks! Many people wear “snake chaps” if hiking or exploring in brushy, rocky areas.
- If you should encounter a rattlesnake on a road or path and want to take a photo, stay a respectful distance of at least six feet away. Consider taking a telephoto shot. A fat Western Diamondback we encountered in San Domingo Wash east of Wickenburg was stretched out full length — a least 5 feet — on the road. As soon as I approached to take a photo, it began to coil into a striking position. They can move faster than one might think. They don’t always rattle a warning. The Vulture Mine office used to have a cage with several young Diamondbacks. Our BLM office, in Lake Havasu City, has a live display of typical snakes and reptiles of the area. It had a Diamondback they named “Houdini” because he escaped so often from his “escape proof” aquarium. The gals would fear opening up the office, as he sometimes sought shelter under their desks. He was finally returned to the desert!
The distinctive black and white tail helps identify Diamondbacks. A note on tail patterns. If the black and white bands are equal width, then it’s the Diamondback. If the last few inches of the tail are whitish with narrow black bands and black bands are narrower than light bands, then it’s most likely the deadly Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus). The Diamondback preys mainly on small mammals. The Mohave eats primarily rodents, but also eats lizards, amphibians, and birds. The Diamondback is considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in the U.S, due to it’s large size, wide distribution, and nervous disposition. The Mohave has very potent venom, making it also one of the most dangerous snakes in the U.S. Two to eleven young are born live to Mohave green rattlers,, and have fully developed fangs and venom, as with all rattlesnakes.
Keeping Dogs and other Animals Safe
Besides keeping your dog on a leash and incidentally watching any small children when you are out on a trail or in brush, there are other ways to keep your pet safe.
Aversive conditioning is one option for dogs especially. A shock collar is placed around the dog’s neck, The dog is exposed to a defanged rattlesnake. As the dog approaches, following a natural tendency to sniff out and investigate a strange scent or animal, it receives a shock. I have been told that this works well in most cases, with few “learning” shocks necessary!
A preventive rattlesnake vaccine for dogs is produced by Red Rock Biologics and is available thru veterinarians. It works by stimulating an animal’s immunity to defend against potentially harmful agents in the venom. It is, quoting from their informational brochure, “intended to help create an immunity that will protect your dog against rattlesnake venom.” It costs about $45 for one shot, then another $45 for a booster, for protection that lasts about one year.
What to Do if You or your Pet are Bitten
Remember the dying dog my brother-in-law tried to rescue? There is a lot of information on the Internet . Here’s a quick summary of important steps to take. Some writers recommend printing out first aid information and affixing it to a card to carry with you. Other people carry rattlesnake bite kits (which we do) that have quick first aid information on a small card.
- Recognize the symptoms of a poisonous bite: bloody wound discharge; fang marks in skin and swelling in the site of the bite; severe localized pain; diarrhea; burning sensations; convulsions, fainting and/or weakness; blurred vision; excessive sweating, fever; increased thirst; loss of muscle coordination; nausea and vomiting; numbness and tingling; and rapid pulse. Not pleasant!
- Get away from the snake. DO NOT handle the body or head (if it was severed). A rattler can bite up to an hour after decapitation. A spasm from a “dead” snake will reflectively deliver the full load of venom, which can be worse than from a live snake!
- If possible, call 911 immediately. But, if you are in a remote or inaccessible areas, you and/or your companion will have to deal with the bite. Try to stay calm!
- DO NOT elevate the wounded area. Keep the bite BELOW the level of the heart. Most bites are on the legs, but if you are bitten on an arm, keep it lowered. This will slow the spread of venom thru your system. This makes venom-carrying blood work against, rather than with, the pull of gravity to reach your heart or the rest of your body.
- Wash the area, if possible, with warm water and soap.
- Remove constricting clothing and jewelry from the extremity. The area may swell and constricting items will cause tissue death.
- Do not cut or suck on the wound. Some snake bite kits use extractor pumps with suction devices. Any kit is useless unless used immediately after the bite. Even just a few minutes later the venom (if any) will have spread too far thru your bloodstream to be sucked out!
- If there’s a digital camera available, take a photo of the snake, rather than trying to handle a “dead” snake. But, it’s not that important to identify the rattlesnake, as medical crews in areas prone to snake bites (like some areas around Wickenburg) can often identify whether it was a pit viper just from the wound.
- Antivenin (correct spelling) is usually administered when a victim is taken to a hospital.
Dogs (and possibly humans) can be treated by a very expensive antivenin called crotalidae polyvalent, made by a company called Fort Dodge in Fort Dodge, Iowa. It’s a concentrated preparation of “equine serum globulins obtained by fractioning blood from healthy horses that have been immunized with venoms.” One venom is from Western Diamondbacks. The antivenin neutralizes the venom with a protective substance. A dose of 10 to 50 ml (one to five vials) is given intravenously. Dosage varies by severity of the symptoms, lapse of time after the bite, size of snake, and size of victim. Then, additional doses may be required every 2 hours if pain and swelling persist or recur. Supportive therapy includes antibiotics, called dexamethasone, for four days afterward. Cost? At least $500 for ONE vial for a small dog! Plus further treatment and clinic expenses. Vaccines are much more reasonable!
The death incidence worldwide from snake bites is greater in dogs than in any other domestic animal. The area most frequently bitten is the head region, sometimes the shoulders, thighs or legs. Fatalities in horses and cats are less common, though may occur if the animal is bitten on the face or neck. In the Southwest, most snake bites to animals are from the Western Diamondback.
Human bite statistics are not compiled nationwide. Here’s some data:
- Of poisonous bites in the U.S., 55 percent are from rattlesnakes, 34 percent from copperheads, 10 percent from water moccasins, and only 1 percent from coral snakes.
- Rattlesnake bites account for 70 percent of fatalities, and 95 to 98 percent of their bites occur on extremities.
- Baby rattlers are capable of inflicting a venomous bite at birth.
- As many as 25 percent of venomous pit viper bites have NO venom injected, possibly because their fangs may be injured, venom sacs may be empty at the time of the bite, or the snake may not use the fangs when it strikes.
- There are about 400 rattlesnake bites a year in Arizona. Fewer than 275 are treated. An internet article by Kate Nolan, “Is Rattlesnake’s Bite Growing Deadlier?” The Arizona Republic, June 14, 2008, suggests that despite a slight rise in the number of snakebites reported, state wildlife and toxicology experts remain skeptical of both the supposed rise in venom toxicity and the significance of the small increase in the number of serious bites. Instead, probable causes are habitat destruction, more people moving into snake territory, and variations in toxicity of venom among individual snakes. A researcher found that venom from one rattlesnake can be up to ten times as toxic as that of another of the same type, depending on the location of the snake.
There is a death about every 24-36 months on the average. At least 5 deaths have occurred in Arizona since 2002. Everyone bitten, whether they die or not, has long- lasting consequences including some loss of motor dexterity and loss of tissue.
- Ninety percent of those bitten are doing something they should not be doing in the first place . That includes crowding too close, trying to handle the snake (either when it’s dead or alive), and general carelessness in the snake’s territory.
Be aware; be respectful of rattlesnakes and their territory. Know what to do if you or your pet are bitten!
Thank you to Lisa Luna, DVM, and Glen Mishkin of Paws and Claws Veterinary Clinic in Lake Havasu City, Arizona for information on dog vaccines and antivenin treatments.
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