ST. GEORGE – With summer coming, Southern Utah residents and tourists are heading outside to hike, bike, climb and otherwise enjoy the great outdoors the region is known for. Just keep in mind that the outdoors in which you choose to recreate is also home to a variety of wildlife, including rattlesnakes.
“Rattlesnakes are a very important part of Utah’s ecosystem,” Krissy Wilson, native aquatic species coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, wrote on the DWR website. “They control pests such as mice and voles. They’re fascinating creatures.”
If you encounter a rattlesnake
While coming across a rattlesnake in the wild can be a frightening experience, Wilson suggests you stay calm and give the snake plenty of space, at least 5 feet. With that distance between you and the snake, walk around the snake and move on.
“Usually, the snake is simply moving through the area, sunning itself or looking for a place to hide,” Wilson said. “If you leave the snake alone, it will leave you alone.”
Once you’ve cleared the snake, alert others to its location. Keep children and pets away.
“I can’t overemphasize how important it is to give rattlesnakes space, to watch where you step, to watch where you place your hands when you sit down, and above all, to resist the urge to harass or kill a snake,” Wilson said.
Attempting to kill or harass a snake increases the likelihood of getting bitten. On top of that, rattlesnakes are protected under Utah law.
Emergency room doctors at Dixie Regional Medical Center see around four or five rattlesnake bites a year, Dr. Nate Holland said.
Signs of a rattlesnake bite can include severe pain, swelling, low blood pressure, thirst, tiredness or muscle fatigue, drooping eyelids, numbness in the face and limbs.
The venom can cause localized soft tissue necrosis and keep blood from clotting, Holland said.
If bitten, get to a hospital as quickly as possible, he said, at least within 6 hours. Most complications from rattlesnake bites are not fatal but can cause lingering muscle and tissue damage. Necrosis can result in the loss of a limb if not treated in a timely manner.
The Mayo Clinic offers this advice on what to do and what not to do if bitten by a snake:
- Do remain calm. Move beyond the snake’s striking distance.
- Don’t try to capture the snake. Try to remember its color and shape so that you can describe it, which will help in your treatment.
- Do remove jewelry and tight clothing. This is important to do before you start to swell.
- Don’t use a tourniquet. Nor should you apply ice.
- Do position yourself. If possible depending on where you have been bitten, try to position yourself so the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
- Don’t cut the wound. Nor should you attempt to remove the venom by sucking it out.
- Do clean the wound. But don’t flush it with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing.
- Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol. These beverages could speed your body’s absorption of venom.
Six rattlesnake subspecies call Utah home. The most common is the Great Basin rattlesnake. The Great Basin rattlesnake is found across the state, according to the Utah DWR.
A rattlesnake encounter will likely occur in areas with rocky, talus slopes. Hikers and others who frequent the outdoors may have crossed a snake’s path and not even realized it.
“A snake’s camouflage allows it to blend into its surroundings,” Wilson said. “They’re tough to see.”
If your backyard happens to be in an area rattlesnakes may pass through, the DWR has the following tips:
- Reduce the number of places that provide snakes with shelter. Brush, wood, rock and junk piles are all items you should get rid of.
- Control rodent populations. Bird feeders and water are two of the main items that draw rodents to yards.
- Avoid scaring away harmless snake species, such as gopher snakes. Having other snake species on or near your yard may deter rattlesnakes from wandering through.
- Wilson said she’s heard of people using “snake repellents.” But she isn’t aware of any scientific testing that shows these products are effective.
If a rattlesnake is in your yard, try to remove it by spraying it out of the area with a garden hose, while staying at least 15 feet away. If the hose doesn’t work, do not try to remove it yourself. Contact animal control or the DWR office closest to you. In St. George, call 435-879-8694; in Cedar City, call 435-865-6100.
Additional rattlesnake safety tips can be found on the Wild Aware Utah website.
Southwest Partners also provides rattlesnake safety information. A copy of the organization’s “Living with Venomous Reptiles” brochure is available online.
Rattlesnakes and dogs
If you’re hiking with your dog, keep it on the trail and on a leash with no more than 6 feet between you and the canine. Dogs off leash can go off-trail and disturb everything in their path – and pay for it if they run across a rattlesnake.
Recognize the signs of a snake bite and get the dog to the vet as soon as possible, as the bite could prove fatal otherwise.
Immediate symptoms include puncture wounds – whether bleeding or not – and severe pain, swelling, restlessness, panting or drooling.
Depending on the amount of venom injected and the size of your dog, more severe symptoms may include muscle tremors, diarrhea, seizures and depressed breathing.
If your dog is bitten on its face, there will be immediate swelling.
If you are able, carry your dog to your car. If you can’t, walk it calmly to your car. You are trying to limit the dog’s movement to keep the venom from circulating throughout its body.
The faster your dog gets the anti-venom the better its chances for survival.
Have your dog vaccinated
Red Rock Biologics manufactures a dog vaccine for rattlesnake bites. It’s made from snake venom and is designed to delay and reduce the reaction to a bite.
“It’s one shot, a month later the dog gets another shot, then it’s yearly after that. Most of the vets around here carry the rattlesnake vaccine,” Charlene Williams, a veterinary technician at Animal Medical Hospital in St. George, said. “If they (the dogs) are bitten after they’ve had that, because they’re getting a dose of the venom, they have built up a resistance.”
The risk is not completely eliminated, so your dog will still need to get to the vet as soon as possible.
“The rattlesnake vaccination costs about $25, and can greatly reduce the amount of anti-venom serum the dog needs and the severity of the reaction to the bite,” Liz Koskenmaki, a veterinarian in Burbank, California, said in a conversation with adoptapet.com.
“It sure makes it a lot easier,” Williams agreed. “It’s not as life-threatening after they’ve had those shots.”
With some vials of anti-venom costing between $500 and $1,000, you’re not only saving your beloved dog, you’re saving a lot of money as well.
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