Posted by Bob Corley of Arizona Quail Hunting Camp
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Snake Bite Avoidance & Prevention
Each year I have multiple inquiries asking for explanations or more information on rattlesnakes. Here are some of the questions with my take on it after 56 years of hunting our desert habitats:
When are snakes a problem in Arizona?
Rattlesnakes come out of hibernation on warm, sunny days usually around March depending upon temperatures. They warm themselves to begin activity and are ready to feed after a winter’s hibernation. Prior to shedding their skins the eyes turn cloudy with limited vision, so snakes can be very aggressive, nervous, agitated and defensive during shedding times. Rattlers can regulate how much venom is injected from their modified salivary glands. Also, if they have just recently struck a prey with a full load, they have very little venom until their “supply” is accumulated. This can lead to what is known as a “dry bite.” Snakes of the same species — whether young and small or old and big — produce the same venom. The only variable is the amount of venom they can make, accumulate or inject. All of our Crotalids are mostly hemotoxic (and all of our venomous snakes are hemotoxic except our small coral snakes — they are neurotoxic.) Hemotoxic venom contains enzymes that break down blood and muscle cells, i.e., they “digest” those cells much like enzymes in your stomach and intestines. I saw first hand what that was like — see my Max episode below.
During hot summer days, they seek shade. During colder fall mornings, they seek sun and can be very lethargic until they warm up. As cold blooded reptiles, air temperature and body temperature regulation is everything. After the first good frost all our snakes look for a good underground spot to hibernate for the remainder of the winter.
I have found that our rattlers are most active just as they emerge from the winter den and again just before they go back into their dens in late fall. They seem to be out and about moving, feeding, breeding (spring), and overall we just see more at those times of year. Rattlesnakes do a “Combat Dance” during breeding season. Google it. You will be amazed. The most dangerous time for Ariz bird hunters is our Sept. dove season and early quail season until we get our first good hard frost. On rare occasions snakes are observed during our colder months of Nov-Feb, but are usually very lethargic while getting a very short dose of sunshine.
Have you or one of your dogs ever had a snake bite?
Yes. In early March, 2005 I had my Max, then age 2, out on a training run. I never heard a buzz, just a short yelp from Max, and a bloody spot on his right jowl area when he immediately came back to me. I had given him only one vaccine shot a month or so before that time — with no follow-up shot as yet. I heeled him back to the truck and swelling and pain was clear and immediate.
At first the vet suggested we wait to see if the one vaccine dose would help him without anti-venin injection. That was a mistake. (See below what Red Rock Biologic now recommends for vaccines.) It was ugly. Extremely painful. Life threatening. Max lost huge chunks of flesh from his neck and side of his face. After several days in emergency care with pain killers, IV drips, and antibiotics, and about $1,500, he recovered and hunted well the remainder of his life. In 56 years this was my only incident of snake bite.
But I hope to never see an animal in that serious condition again — ever.
How can we avoid problems with rattlesnakes for our dogs and hunters?
How about avoidance training? Several professional dog trainers offer avoidance training for dogs. They use an e-collar to train avoidance for sight, sound, and smell. Essentially, they use a de-fanged snake and shock on a high setting using the collar. If done correctly, your dog can get out of the truck, see, hear, or smell any snake and come running back to you or the truck for protection. I have never gone this route for my Britts, but many, many hunters that I know do — and it not only works, but gives the hunters a level of confidence and peace of mind.
One thing that can really help is to strictly train and emphasize the “Come” command. I train to also come to the whistle. In the past I have heard a snake rattle, and emphatically and repeatedly yelled “COME” and whistled, then continually walked away from the snake. Has worked well for my Britts. I did NOT go back to shoot the snake. Just continued to walk away taking the Britts with me. The danger would be a snake that was silent and/or one I did not see. (That was the case with my Max — see above.)
What about rattlesnakes vaccines?
Rattlesnake vaccine is available from Red Rock Biologics out of California. They sell the vaccine only to vets. I called to check. Because the injection is given subcutaneously (right under the skin) just like you would give puppy 7-in-1 shots.
For the initial protection, a second vaccine is recommended to be given one month after the first shot. Red Rock notes that maximum protection is about 5-6 months after the shot is given.
After the first year, Red Rock still recommends vaccines for hunting dogs in our Arizona desert twice per year, i.e., every 6 months. Other hunters I know give vaccine shots annually after initial first-year injections.
Cost is an issue if you have many dogs. If the vet must give it, he usually charges an office visit, a health exam, plus the vaccine. To the tune of $45-$50 per dog or so — twice per year. BUT if you have a good vet who can work with you, he might give the initial vaccine, then sell you follow-up vaccine that you can administer at a much reduced cost to you. It is certainly worth asking. If you have a kennel of dogs, that would be a substantial savings.
Do you wear snake leggings? How about snake/hunter interactions?
I have never personally had a problem, or a “near” problem with snakes. Nor have I ever known a hunter who was struck by an Arizona snake. I think rock climbers who climb putting their hands into small crevaces and ledges would be much more likely to be struck. Snakes love to hang out in rocks and under ledges.
I don’t wear snake leggings. It seems hunters hiking the high grass prairies of the mid-west during snake season might consider snake leggings before we do here in the desert. Manufacturers make some good leggings now. Before our first good, hard freeze, you might want to consider wearing some if all this reptile talk makes you nervous.
The bottom line? Hunting Arizona quail from about Thanksgiving until the first week of February should find the huge majority of our snakes underground.