Preventing and dealing with rattlesnake bites
for Tri-State Livestock News
A majority of phobias and fears stem from the unknown. The human mind can run rampant when an individual lacks knowledge on a specific subject. This proves to be especially true with rattlesnakes. Many people find themselves afraid of these reptiles, and ranchers are not immune to this fear.
Dennis Ferraro, herpetologist and professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln advises people to take 10 steps back if they ever encounter a rattlesnake. In most instances, if people leave the snakes alone, Ferraro said the snakes in turn will leave the people alone.
Despite people fearing for their own safety, as well as that of their livestock, Ferraro said rattlesnakes are much less of a threat than what people tend to believe.
In Nebraska, he said there are less than five bites a year, and the demographics of people bitten usually fall to males between the ages of 18 to 35. Alcohol is a common factor in these instances.
For all individuals, ranchers included, Ferraro said knowledge is power. The more information others gather, the better equipped they are to understand the snakes and interact with them when necessary.
If ranchers in areas such as Nebraska or North and South Dakota see a rattlesnake, Ferraro said it is likely a prairie rattlesnake. Aptly named, these snakes inhabit the rolling prairies.
The Natural Source, an environmental guide to natural resources put together by staff from Northern State University in South Dakota, said this species of snake is the only poisonous snake in the state.
The guide identifies prairie rattlesnakes as gray-green in color with green blotches to help them camouflage themselves in their native environment. Their most identifiable features include a wide, triangular head, thin neck, and blunt tail.
These snakes are known for rattling their tails when threatened, hence the name “rattlesnake,” but people should not assume the absence of the trademark rattling noise means the snake is not a rattlesnake, Ferraro said.
The Natural Source said the prairie rattlesnake is typically most active in late spring and summer months and can likely pose the biggest problem to ranchers April through October. The snakes typically only present a small threat to livestock from September until the next year, as they hibernate through the winter, the guide said.
“From all the data I’ve studied, I believe the snakes get a really bad rap,” Ferraro said. “They don’t really cause problems. People cause problems.”
To help avoid unnecessary issues or interactions with rattlesnakes, Ferraro recommends ranchers implement extra caution. This includes actions such as looking into irrigation pipes (a common hiding place for the reptiles) before reaching into them and stepping on rocks and logs rather than just stepping over them. Both of these simple actions can help keep a rancher out of a snake’s striking zone.
In regards to actual rattlesnake bites, Ferraro said most “knowledge” people have is based off of misconceptions. Rattlesnakes cannot control whether or not venom is released when they bite something, he said.
“It’s all hydraulics,” he said. “The venom is not for protection, it’s for digestion.”
Bites still happen, however, both to livestock and humans. If a rancher or someone they know is bitten, Ferraro said to call 911 immediately.
Do not put ice on the bite or use a tourniquet, he added. He suggests the bitten individual lie down if possible, so the wound is level with the heart. Victims of rattlesnake bites should always be taken to hospital or emergency for treatment, he said.
Amanda Anderson of Shadehill, South Dakota, dealth with a bite first hand when her five-year-old son Evan was bitten in early August.
Her husband immediately headed toward the hospital with Evan, and because they called the ambulance, it met them part way and delivered Evan to the Emergency Room.
Amanda shares her tips:
• Get to the hospital ASAP.
• Call the hospital and let them know you’re coming so they have time to prepare the anti-venom. It takes around 30-45 minutes to get it ready, because it’s frozen, needs to be brought to room temp, and then mixed. They were almost ready for Evan by the time he got there.
• They don’t recommend doing any tourniquets or cutting open the bite area and sucking the venom out. Also, because the tissue around the bite is compromised, they don’t recommend ice packs, at least not for very long.
• Keep the area elevated and try to stay calm until medical help is available. “That’s easier said than done!”
Ferraro said most livestock that fall victim to rattlesnake bites are horses or dogs. He said they tend to investigate, meaning they put their noses down within the strike zone of the snakes.
If livestock are bit on the face, Ferraro said the area typically will swell and suffocate the animal. This symptom actually causes more deaths in livestock than the venom itself, he added.
In preparation of problems with swelling, Ferraro said ranchers should travel with a hose whenever they know they are going through rattlesnake territory with livestock. If an animal is bit, he said the hose can be put into the nasal cavity to help the animal continue breathing.
If a rancher notices an animal of any species with a wound from a rattlesnake, he said they should try and keep the animal as calm as possible and seek veterinarian help. Smaller animals like dogs can be taken to the vet, while vets should come to the ranch to treat larger livestock like cattle and horses.
Ferraro said time is always the biggest concern for rattlesnake victims.
“Whether it’s you or a dog or some other livestock, the sooner [the treatment] the better,” he added.
In all instances where ranchers encounter a rattlesnake, Ferraro urges ranchers to walk away. He said the best option is to leave the snake alone. Cases where interaction cannot be avoided should be handled with care. When a snake has to be euthanized, Ferraro suggests using a snare or tong on a pole a minimum of six feet or a firearm.
“Keep your distance,” he said. “The highest number of people that get bit are people going to kill the animal.”
At the end of the day, the biggest threat to a rancher and their livestock is a lack of information. Ranchers should equip themselves with knowledge about all potential threats, including rattlesnakes. Knowledge is power, and only powerful ranchers can provide the best care to their livestock.