Rattlesnakes slithered out of their dens near Durango a little earlier this year than in previous years, and with an extended rattlesnake season, Riverview Animal Hospital has treated more bites from spring through the start of August.
Rattlesnakes are typically more active in the warmer months of summertime into the fall, but their activity started earlier in the spring this year, said Randy Hays, veterinarian at Riverview Animal Hospital.
Riverview Animal Hospital and other Durango animal hospitals are stocked with antivenom that is used to treat snake bites and mitigate their dangerous – and sometimes life-threatening – bites, he said.
This spring and summer, Riverview Animal Hospital is seeing an average of about three snake bites per month. He said it is only a small increase from previous years, but an uptick for sure.
Hays said rattlesnakes are commonly spotted at the Durango Dog Park, the Horse Gulch trail system, the Turtle Lake Meadows area and Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico.
Chris Burke, spokesman for La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t received any calls about snake bites or removal in the last year, but deputies respond if asked.
John Livingston, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s southwest region, said CPW has had only a couple of calls about rattlesnakes in the Durango and La Plata County area so far this year.
But he said Durango and the surrounding area certainly has rattlesnakes.
People are most likely to come across a rattlesnake when the sun is up and temperatures are warm, he said.
Chris Nelson, director of animal services at La Plata County Humane Society, said bull snakes are typically more prevalent than rattlers. Sometimes, people mistake them for rattlesnakes, he said.
“They (bull snakes) keep rattlesnakes away,” he said. “They’ve been known to eat little rattlesnakes. Bull snakes are our friends. Everybody needs to know that. They kill mice and they keep away rattlesnakes.”
The Humane Society’s animal protection services don’t typically handle snake removals, he said, but officers will respond as a courtesy.
Nelson said regardless of what kind of snake it is, if hikers or bikers come across one on the trail or at a park, they should leave it alone.
“It doesn’t want you to mess with it and it doesn’t want anything to do with humans,” he said.
He said snakes are coldblooded creatures that need to warm themselves to boost their metabolism and digest their food.
“Give them a nice wide berth, turn around if you have to, but don’t walk over them, don’t touch them, don’t mess with them,” Nelson said. “Don’t try to find out what kind it is. Just leave it alone.”
A snake that feels threatened may take up a defensive posture, but it’s just as likely to retreat in the opposite direction, he said.
Livingston said rattlesnakes will go to great lengths to avoid having to deliver a venomous bite. Rattlesnake bites to humans and pets are typically accidents – a person might accidentally step on a snake they didn’t notice, or a curious dog might get too close to the snake to sniff it.
Somebody bitten by a rattlesnake should seek hospitalization within 30 minutes of being bitten, he said. For a healthy adult, a rattlesnake bite is probably not fatal. But fatalities are more common in children and people with other medical conditions.
“If you are bit, the first thing you want to do is get out of that vicinity,” he said. “You don’t want to risk getting more bites from that same snake. If you can, try to get out of that area and to some place where you can kind of lie flat and rest comfortably.”
If someone in a group of people is bitten, one person should seek help. But the bite victim shouldn’t be left alone, Livingston said.
After suffering a bite, allow the wound to bleed freely for about 30 seconds. Then, work on cleansing and disinfecting the wound with iodine or, if that isn’t an option, soap and water, he said.
The goal in wrapping the wound is to restrict movement of the limb and to prevent venom from getting into the body’s bloodstream. But wrapping the wound so tightly that the bandage cuts off circulation doesn’t do any good, he said.
Rattlesnake venom works by breaking down muscle tissues at a rapid pace. In the wild, the venom starts the process of digesting the snake’s prey.
Hays, the veterinarian, said the sooner a pet gets treatment after a bite, the better.
He said it is best to briskly walk or carry the pet to the car, and to call a veterinarian ahead of time to let them know of the situation.
Venom can often induce shock in pets. It affects multiple systems inside the body, he said.
“It can also cause damage to the heart as well as damage to the local tissues where the bite has taken place. They tend to bleed a little bit excessively from where the bite took place,” he said. “The big immune reaction from the venom itself is the biggest concern, and that’s what causes the shock.”
Primary treatment includes fluid therapy, pain medications and the use of antivenom. Hays said antivenom is extremely effective and makes a significant difference in the levels of discomfort and pain a pet may experience after being bitten. He said best results occur if an animal is treated within two hours of being bitten.
He warned that a bite from a young (smaller) rattlesnake isn’t to be taken any lighter than from a large or adult one, contrary to what some people might think.
“Actually, it can sometimes more dangerous,” he said. “They can sometimes release all of their venom with one bite. Whereas an adult rattlesnake usually conserves some of its venom for future potential fights.”
Hays said all of the local animal hospitals in Durango work together to cover these types of emergencies.