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People, pets at risk for snake bites

Santa Barbara News-Press , 22 May 2006

Anna Davison

With spring comes beautiful blooms, the beginning of the barbecue season, and, unfortunately for some, rattlesnake bites.

More than 800 people are bitten by rattlesnakes each year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, but there are generally only one or two deaths.

Nobody's been treated for bites yet this year in the emergency rooms at Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez or Goleta Valley Cottage hospitals, said spokeswoman Janet O'Neill.

"I think the weather is keeping those snakes inside," she said.

But rattlesnakes pose a hazard not just to people, but also to pooches.

Veterinarians at California Animal Referral & Emergency Hospital in Santa Barbara have treated five dogs that have been bitten in the last couple of months; one died.

In a typical year, they'll see 20 four-legged bite victims.

"It is mostly dogs being curious, out on a hike, off leash," said Dr. Deanna Purvis, chief of staff at CARE Hospital and a specialist in veterinary emergency care.

Her staff only occasionally treat cats that have been bitten, she added. "I don't know if they're smarter, but when we see bites on cats, they tend to be on the feet and limbs; they tend to be less severe. If a cat looks at something it tends to go in with its paws" -- not its face, where dogs often are bitten.

For dogs, a bite "can be life-threatening," Dr. Purvis said, although the severity depends on the health of the dog, how much venom is injected -- some bites are "dry" -- and where the animal is bitten. Bites in areas like the face and mouth, which are rich in blood vessels, are the worst.

Unfortunately, Dr. Purvis said, dogs explore with their noses, so bites are usually inflicted on their faces.

Dogs that have been bitten need to be taken to a veterinarian that has antivenin as soon as possible -- but don't make your pooch run, because that will help the venom circulate and make things worse.

"Decrease your pet's mobility as much as possible," Dr. Purvis said. "Carry them if you can."

Pets are treated with the same antivenin that's used in people.

"It's an antibody that binds to the venom, and that's why it neutralizes it. That's why it's important to get it on board as soon as possible," Dr. Purvis said.

Antivenin is expensive, though, at about $500 a vial, with some dogs requiring several vials. Bite victims also get fluids, pain-relieving drugs and antibiotics to battle any bugs on the snake's fangs.

There is a vaccine available for pets, Dr. Purvis said, although "there's not a lot of scientific information on it, even though it's been available for five or six years." The vaccine "doesn't mean that they're completed protected," Dr. Purvis said. "It may buy you a little more time."

Dr. Purvis advised dog owners to keep their pets leashed and not to let them nose around in brush or other places where snakes hang out.

"If you've got control of them I think they're safer," she said.

e-mail: adavison@newspress.com