Rattlesnake Vaccine

Dog - Rattlesnake bite

Photo: USFWS

Rattlesnake season is here!

There is a new canine rattlesnake vaccine out from a company called Red Rocks Biologics, and there is a fair amount of interest and discussion among hunting dog owners.  The vaccine has been out for a couple of years now, and has some practical testing by vets and dogs afield. Based on the manufactures website, the vaccine helps stimulate the dogs system to manufacture venom antibodies which will neutralize rattlesnake poison if bitten. The first year the dog is vaccinated, they should get two injections spaced one month apart, then should receive annual booster shots about a month before the likelihood of snake encounter.

There are two main questions a dog owner should ask about this vaccine; is it safe for my dog, and do they really need it.

Red Rocks Biologics reports that this vaccine is approved by the USDA and is as safe as other animal vaccines. They report that it is safe for use in pregnant and lactating dogs, puppies and healthy adult dogs. They report few minor side effects and few serious cases resulting from inoculations. On the other hand, researching the web, I did come across several dog owners that reported problems their dog experienced (from minor to fatal) in reaction to the vaccine.

I think the first question you should ask is whether or not your dog really needs the vaccination. Often times, we are so scared of snakes (ophidiophobia) that we can’t make a balanced judgment. Hollywood has made millions on this fear. The thing to ask is, realistically, how often do you actually encounter rattlesnakes. For many people, especially here in Utah, I venture to say that it is seldom to never. For others, particularly in the Mojave Desert country of southwestern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, the answer is very different. Rattlesnakes are a very real threat.

One of the main problems for gun dogs is that they are often in hunting mode with their nose to the ground and are curious about snakes. I wonder how much a snake smells like a bird (phylogenetically speaking, there are some connections). My pointer commonly points box turtles in the Nebraska Sand Hills while hunting prairie chickens. (I have heard that this is common for bird dogs to point turtles and other reptiles.) With this curiosity and prey drive, they are very likely to get bitten from a snake if they encounter one. A second problem is that dogs are often bitten in the face and they are small enough that the venom from a snake can be very serious.

I have talked to two different vets in southwest rattlesnake country that strongly recommend to their clients the preventive use of rattlesnake vaccine. They have used the vaccine on tens, if not hundreds of dogs over the past two years with very little problems, and report several positive results after snake envenomations. Closer to home, a good friend of mine has inoculated his dog two years in a row now and not had any complications. He certainly feels more at ease hunting chukars and desert quail in rattlesnake country. One comment on this issue I found particularly useful is on doggienews.com. For the full article see the following link (http://www.doggienews.com/2005/02/rattlesnake-venom-vaccinations.htm).

Something else to consider is snake avoidance training. Look for these clinics in particularly snake prone regions. Using training collars and actual rattlesnakes, you can train your dog to avoid snakes altogether. Snake avoidance training is offered here at Cove Mountain Kennels, however, due to the complication of handling rattlesnakes, I like to hold a clinic just once a year and get as many dogs as possible trained. This training is very effective against having your dog seek out snakes; however, there is always the threat of a surprise encounter and therefore, maybe reason for the vaccine.

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