How to Keep Your Hunting Dog Safe in Snake Country

A lot of us who Go West — meaning to the Dakotas and beyond — to chase pheasants and other upland birds find ourselves hunting in some pretty toasty weather. And the toastier the temperature in that part of the world, the more active rattlesnakes are likely to be.

This is a relatively minor concern for us who stand on two legs (at least in terms of our personal safety) but it’s a huge one for our dogs, whose exposure is vastly greater than ours. The bottom line is that if you’re hunting the West when it’s warm, you need to be prepared for the possibility that your dog could get bitten.

As a first line of defense, many veterinarians recommend the rattlesnake vaccine developed by Red Rock Biologics (redrockbiologics.com). Administered initially in two doses a month apart followed by an annual booster, it stimulates the dog’s immune system to produce antibodies specific to the toxins found in the venom of most rattlesnakes. While the vaccine doesn’t completely eliminate the effects of a snakebite, in most cases it substantially reduces their severity.

“That’s been our experience,” says Dr. John Voegeli of the Animal Clinic in Winner, South Dakota. “We recommend it for all dogs that are at high risk for snakebite. Some dogs have a mild reaction to the shot, just as they sometimes do to other injections, but we’re satisfied that it’s a safe, effective product.”

It’s not terribly expensive, either—the going rate’s around $30-$40 per dose—so in that respect it’s pretty cheap insurance.

Still, Voegeli stresses that whether your dog’s been vaccinated or not, snakebite is always—always—a veterinary emergency. (Which is why, whenever you’re hunting in snake country, you should learn beforehand where the nearest vets are located.) The critical things to remember, he says, are to get your dog to the vet’s as quickly as you can, and to keep him as quiet as possible enroute. The more agitated your dog becomes, the faster the toxin will spread through his system.

“Every snakebite case is different,” Voegeli notes. “The placement of the bite, the amount of envenomation, the size of the dog and its individual susceptibility to the effects of the neurotoxin…There are a host of variables that we weigh to determine appropriate treatment.”

As a rule, says Voegeli, treatment with antivenin is required in only the most serious cases. The kicker is that you can’t wait to “see how the dog’s doing”; you have to make the decision to administer it ASAP. But it’s expensive—$600 to $800 or more—not every veterinarian stocks it, and even the ones who try to keep it on hand can have trouble getting it depending on the vagaries of the supply.

The best outcome of all, of course, is for your dog not to get bitten in the first place. You can reduce the risk by steering away from obviously snaky places such as prairie dog towns, clusters of old buildings, and rocky south-facing slopes. You can also have your dog “snakeproofed,” a procedure that involves exposing the dog to a live de-fanged rattler and zapping him with an electronic collar the moment he displays any interest in it. After a few jolts most dogs will give snakes of any stripe a wide berth for the rest of their lives.

Accidents happen, though, so it pays to know how to respond.