Rattlesnake Vaccines 101

The Myths and “Magic” behind Rattlesnake Bites. Why you should vaccinate your dog against it! (I know your fur babies will thank you!)



Well, we live in Utah.  We have sunny skies and amazing scenery and many things to sniff- chances are you do not leave Fido at home while you are playing outdoors.

Mountain biker, climber, hiker, camper?

Guess what?  While you are hanging off that rock crag, chances are your dog has grown bored waiting for “master” to return and has his nose stuck into a crack you used as a hand hold hours ago.

While you are flying down the trail on your bike kicking up dust, you may also be riling up some snakes in the nearby bushes, just in time for your dog to trot by minutes later.

While you are enjoying a nice campfire with friends after a long hike, chances are Fido is not tired and is out rummaging around under rocks, and bushes.

The point is: even though you may not see rattlesnakes all that commonly, your dog has a different point of view and is looking for trouble. This is why we love them so much, right? (We have our humans wrapped around our paw!)


Newman and Friend checking the scenery out on a hiking break.

Venomous snakes bite about 150,000 dogs and cats every year. Dogs and cats are about 20 times more likely to be bitten by venomous snakes than people and are about 25 times more likely to die if bitten. A dog or cat is about 300 times more likely to be bitten by a venomous snake than to get rabies. Snake bites are life threatening, extremely painful, expensive to treat, and can cause permanent damage even when the dogs survive.


Myth #1:  If my dog gets bit by a rattlesnake all I need to do is give Benedryl.

Um, no.  Benedryl at 1 mg/pound body weight given once orally is a great start if you are in the middle of nowhere.  However, the insult from a snake bite, even a non-rattler, is multifaceted.  There is anaphylaxis which can cause swelling, edema, and difficulty breathing.  This in and of itself can become life threatening VERY FAST!

But then there are neurotoxins of the venom, the necrosis it causes, intense pain, and the secondary bacterial infection.  All of these things compound to take a very large systemic toll on your pet leading to liver and kidney damage, hemolysis and anemia as well as platelet dysfunction and severe dehydration.

This is why any snake bite warrants an emergent vet visit and likely hospitalization with blood work and intravenous fluids and antibiotics among other supportive care.

Bottom line: A snake bite is not a small potato deal.


Myth #2:  Small dogs are more likely to die than a large dog that gets bitten.

Um, no. There are too many factors at play for this generality.  Small dogs are more likely to get bit once and get scared and run away.  Large dogs may try to play with the snake and get bit multiple times.

A “dry bite” is better than a venomous one (how would you know if it were “dry” unless you were in the snake’s mouth?) and juvenile snake bites are the worst because they release all their venom at once whereas adult snakes may hold back some venom.

Some parts of the body are worse for getting bit than others.  Some dogs may already have kidney or liver compromise or anemia and a snake bite pushes these dogs systemically faster than a 100% healthy dog.  Some dogs have collapsing tracheas and any hypersensitivity can turn life threatening for oxygen depletion quickly.

Bottom line:  Size doesn’t matter.


Myth #3: My dog got bit. There is nothing I can do other than put my head in the sand. My dog is going to die. 

YOU ARE NOT AN OSTRICH!! (Although they would be fun to chase…) You are a knowledge empowered pet owner!!  What to do (ie. What Dr. Doub would do with her dog (me!)):

  • Give Benedryl ASAP before airway compromise 1 mg/lb by mouth once
  • Try to keep your dog calm. Lowered blood pressure will keep the toxins localized
  • No tourniquets or sucking venom out!!!
  • Do not give any human pain meds: aspirin, ibuprofen, etc and even a Rimadyl or other doggie NSAID can be very harmful to your pet and are CONTRAINDICATED with snake bites
  • Get to a vet ASAP. The closest to your location, the better.  They can always transfer to a 24 hour facility or your regular veterinarian once your pet is stabilized.
  • Get a friend to help you carry your dog to your vehicle and keep your dog cool (not cold, cool) to try to minimize exertion. You can rinse the bite site with tap water or saline (no peroxide!!!  It kills tissue)
  • Think about the rattlesnake vaccine for your dog
Dog bitten by rattlesnake

Dog bitten by rattlesnake


The Magic

Vaccine??   The 411….

Initially, a dog should receive two subcutaneous doses about 30 days apart. Dogs over 100 lbs or under 25 lbs may benefit from a three dose initial series. It is best to give vaccination boosters about 30 days before beginning of exposure to rattlesnakes. Protection peaks about 30 to 45 days after boosters and lasts about six months.


Rattlesnake vaccine has been on the market since 2003 and is a standard of veterinary care for dogs at high risk for rattlesnake bites. It is listed in the American Animal Health Association’s 2006 canine vaccination guidelines. It is conditionally licensed by the USDA and is recommended in over 4,000 veterinary hospitals nationwide. It is highly recommended by VPI, the largest pet insurance company in America. Over 500,000 doses have been used in over 100,000 dogs. Antivenin is not contraindicated because the vaccine uses no horse or sheep products.


Adverse events are reported in far fewer than one percent of all vaccinated dogs. Most of these side effects are mild and need no veterinary care. Injection site lumps can be treated with hot moist compresses, antibiotics, and pain relief medication if necessary. Systemic reactions (typically flu like symptoms) are reported in fewer than one in 3,000 vaccinates and usually self-resolve in two to three days.


Reported benefits include delay of onset of symptoms, less severe symptoms, faster recovery times, and lower mortality rates. About 90% of veterinary clinics nationwide report that the vaccine works well or very well, about 5% of clinics report mixed results, about 3% of clinics see no apparent effect and about 2% of clinics are undecided. Though many vaccinated dogs won’t need additional veterinary care other than initial stabilization, rattlesnake bites can be complex and should still be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.


A vaccinated dog’s resistance to rattlesnake venom can be overcome with enough venom or special circumstances. These circumstances include very small dogs, very large snakes, multiple snake bites to the same dog, or some snake species that the vaccine has little or no protection against.


The vaccine will not protect against coral snakes, cottonmouth snakes, or the Mojave rattlesnake. It has limited protection against the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Red Rock has conducted a survey and received hundreds of rattlesnake bite reports from vet clinics across the country indicating that the vaccine helps protect dogs from many different species and subspecies of rattlesnakes.



A note from Dr. Doub:  I love living in Utah.  Part of this love comes from treating cases like snake bites.  I would take them hands down over a lyme nephritis case any day. These cases are very rewarding to treat because you can see a daily improvement in these patients.

A chaotic and scary situation becomes controlled very fast once the patient is stabilized.  In my experience, with a compliant owner and with quick and proper veterinary assessment and care, most of these patients make a full recovery.

The vaccine will “buy you time” to get out of the wilderness and get your pet to the vet.  It is not to serve as a replacement for immediate veterinary care.  It is definitely something to consider for any active pet.  The staff at UPVH would love to discuss this vaccine with you and decide if it is right for your pet.

(My mom would have had me vaccinated if she was a more avid mountain biker and I wasn’t an old lady and could keep up with her…;))

My old lady self resting in the snow at the park.

My old lady self resting in the snow at the park.

So there you have it! The 101 on Rattlesnake Vaccines!

Straight from The Dog’s Mouth,

Love, Sequoia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *