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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Coexistence and Avoidance Are Keys to Life in Rattlesnake Country

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer and also marks the beginning of peak snake season in the Santa Monica Mountains. Gopher snakes, racers, and king snakes are appearing throughout Malibu, and so is the western diamondback rattlesnake, the area’s only native venomous reptile.
However, while rattlesnakes can be dangerous if provoked, they are not generally aggressive unless threatened, and are a critically important species that helps to control the rodent population.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, rattlesnakes only strike when threatened or deliberately provoked; given room they will retreat.
“Most snake bites occur when a rattlesnake is handled or accidentally touched by someone walking or climbing,” a DFW press release states. “The majority of snakebites occur on the hands, feet and ankles.”
The California Poison Control Center receives an estimated  800 rattlesnake bite reports in an average year, deaths from the western diamondback are rare, seldom more than one or two annually. About 25 percent of all bites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected.
In the event of a rattlesnake bite, the California Poison Control Center advises: Stay calm; wash the bite area gently with soap and water; remove watches, rings, or anything that might constrict swelling; immobilize the affected area; transport safely to the nearest medical facility.
Domestic animals and pets can also be bitten by rattlesnakes. Approximately 300,000 domestic animals are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year, according to government statistics.
The DFW offers the following rattlesnake avoidance advice: “Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas; stick to well-used trails and wear over-the-ankle boots and loose-fitting long pants. Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush; do not step or put your hands where you cannot see, and avoid wandering around in the dark; step on logs and rocks, never over them; check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out sleeping bags before use; be careful when stepping over the doorstep, snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side; never hike alone; do not handle a freshly killed snake, it can still inject venom; teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them alone.”
 Rattlesnakes are not limited to wild areas in the Santa   Monica Mountains and are often encountered in Malibu gardens, under houses, along roads and driveways, and occasionally even on the beach.
According to the DFW, “Many a useful and non-threatening snake has suffered a quick death from a frantic human who has mistakenly identified a gopher snake, garter, racer or other as a rattlesnake. This usually happens when a snake assumes an instinctual defensive position used to bluff adversaries. A gopher snake has the added unfortunate trait of imitating a rattlesnake by flattening its head and body, vibrating its tail, hissing and actually striking if approached too closely.”
A U.C. Davis survey of rattlesnake bite patients at the veterinary teaching hospital between 1994-2005 indicates six felines, 67 canines, 15 horses, three llamas, a goat, a sheep and a parrot. Almost all of the patients survived, according to the report. An estimated five percent of bites are fatal in dogs. With horses the number is higher—10-30 percent. Symptoms include swelling, agitation or depression, severe reactions include trouble breathing, low blood pressure, or even uncontrolled bleeding. One or two puncture wounds on the nose or front paws may be visible. Timely medical treatment is essential.
Davis recommends that the animal’s owner call the veterinary clinic before bringing the animal to ensure that the vet is prepared. Treatment may include fluid therapy, antihistamines, steroids, antibiotics and painkillers and antivenin. A vaccine is also available for animals at high risk for rattlesnake contact.
Dog owners are advised to avoid bringing their dogs on narrow trails or areas with tall grass, rocks or woodpiles during peak rattlesnake season, and to seek out wide, clear trails instead, always keeping pets on leash. Rattlesnake aversion training for dogs is also available.
Animal-related rattlesnake information is available online at www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vmth/pharmacy/pdfs/pharmnewsvol4-1.pdf
More information on rattlesnake coexistance and avoidance is available at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/snake.html

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