Spring is coming, and so is rattlesnake season, at least here in southern California. As the days lengthen and get warmer, rattlesnakes will begin to end their winter hibernation. And this means that our pets, especially our dogs, are once again vulnerable to envenomation. It’s not because these snakes are aggressive, rather we humans encroach into their habitats when we go hiking. For humans it is a relatively safe activity even when snakes are active, because we tend to stay on trails and make noise that warns snakes when we hike. But our dogs like to run off the trail, and are at higher risk of suddenly coming across snakes, particularly in tall grass.
When I take my dogs (Daisy & Duke, the “dogs of Hazzard”) hiking they are very aware of small mammals like mice and gophers. They smell and listen for them intently. But I have seen them step right over snakes without even a casual look or sniff. And that’s what can make them at higher risk for envenomation because they could step on one without even noticing it. So we need to train our dogs to smell and listen for snakes.
There are trainers who help dogs to recognize the scents and sounds of snakes and also to avoid them. A common method to do this is to use a devenomated rattlesnake in the training. These trainers will place the rattlesnake safely in a box that dogs can approach and smell. When they get close some sort of negative reinforcement is used (like a citronella collar). Likewise, whenever the rattlesnake rattles, a negative reinforcement is used on the dogs. This hopefully teaches the dogs to avoid both the scent and sound of rattlesnakes. Even though some negative reinforcement is used in these training sessions, remember that prevention is far better than needing to treat a dog after rattlesnake envenomation.
In my next blog entry I will talk about the clinical effects of envenomation in dogs and how they need to be treated by veterinarians.