June 07, 2012
Should You Vaccinate Your Gun Dog Against Rattlesnake Venom?
By Chad Love
Earlier this week I took my setter pup, Ozzy, to the vet for his last round of routine vaccinations, and while we were there I asked my vet about something every gundog owner who lives and/or hunts in rattlesnake country has to make a decision on: to vaccinate for rattlesnakes or not to vaccinate for rattlesnakes? A while back Pheasants Forever's Bob St. Pierre wrote an excellent blog on the subject after he and his dog encountered rattlesnakes on a South Dakota hunt. As Bob saw it, he had four options.
From the blog:
In discussions with hunters more experienced in “snakey” areas, I’ve determined that I have four options: 1) Vaccinate my dog against snakes 2) Snake-proof or de-snake my dog: train my pup to ignore snakes 3) Do nothing and take my chances 4) Don’t hunt where there are snakes.
Option four, in my opinion (and Bob's) isn't really an option. Not only are virtually all the areas I hunt in rattlesnake country, I live in the middle of rattlesnake country, which means all my play areas, all my training grounds, hell, even my yard is rattlesnake habitat. So that's out.
Having said that, however, even though I've lived and hunted in rattler country all my life, I've never had a dog get bitten by a rattler, so I guess you could say I've been living Bob's option three with no ill effects so far. But I'm not a gambler and I don't like playing numbers. I know the longer I go without incident, the higher the odds go that eventually my (or more specifically, my dogs') number will come up.
Which leads us to the only two options left: vaccines and/or a de-snaking clinic. De-snaking is pretty self-explanatory. It's avoidance training that involves introducing your dog to negative stimulation (usually via the e-collar) in the presence of a de-fanged or de-venomed rattlesnake. I once brought home a big bull snake with the idea of using it as a rattler proxy, but I've been told by a number of people more learned than I that different snakes have different scents and that using a common and harmless constrictor (even an ill-tempered SOB like a bull snake or a coachwhip) doesn't really work.
So you need a trained snake handler with a real rattlesnake rendered harmless for de-snaking to really work. It's a great idea, and if I could find a de-snaking clinic being held near me I'd do it in heartbeat. But what about dogs that are bitten not because they were necessarily messing with a snake, but because they were simply running through or over cover and had the bad luck to step on one as they ran?
So that leaves us with the rattlesnake vaccine. The vaccine is derived from inert western diamondback venom, and much like any other vaccine, is designed to trigger the production of antibodies against rattlesnake venom. It's a two-part shot, is relatively inexpensive and offers at least some level of protection for your dog for about a year. Of course, it's also a bit controversial. Some claim there's no real proof it offers significant protection, and that since the venom is specific to western diamondbacks, it offers reduced or no protection from other species of venomous snakes. In addition, the vaccine does not make your dog immune to snakebite. It merely helps lessen the severity of the reaction. If bitten, you still need to get your dog to a vet immediately, even with the vaccine.
So I mulled the pros and cons, and in the end, on the recommendation of my vet (who had just treated a non-vaccinated dog with anti-venom to the tune of almost six hundred bucks for the dose alone) I decided to get my dogs vaccinated. I figured even if it wasn't completely effective, it just might buy me a few more precious minutes to get a dog to the nearest vet for treatment. And if that alone could make the difference between life and death, its worth would be immeasurable to me.
Anyone else had their dogs vaccinated against rattlesnake bites? What do you think of it? Would you do it again? Had any encounters with rattlesnakes?