The buzz is instantly recognizable, and people alerted by that ominous sound will usually stay away. But the natural curiosity of pets can result in a painful, costly and sometimes deadly bite if the snake in question is a prairie rattlesnake, the only venomous snake native to South Dakota.
“I hear of a few fatalities every year,” said Terry Phillip, a curator at Reptile Gardens.
“Horses get it. Llamas get ’em. Pets get it pretty regular,” he said. “Cats are usually bitten on the front paws. Dogs get it on the nose.”
Rattlesnakes have fangs that contain toxic venom, which disrupts organ functions and interferes with blood clotting. Any bite to man or beast is potentially fatal if not treated promptly and properly.
Snake bites to humans are rare, Phillip said, because the snakes generally try to avoid humans. But bites to animals are much more common.
Rapid City veterinarian Kami Ireland of Dakota Hills Veterinary Clinic said that if your pet is bitten, “don’t do anything crazy. Just get them to the clinic right away. There’s not much you can do in the field.”
Ireland said her clinic treats several dozen animals with rattlesnake bites every summer. Cats tend to fare worse than dogs, but most bite victims survive with proper treatment.
Antivenom used to counter the effects after a snakebite is expensive, costing up to $500 for a 10-milligram vial, Ireland said. And the remedy is pretty hard to come by. Some vet clinics in town say they’re unable to get any to keep on hand.
Dog owners, however, have another option. Red Rock Biologics makes a vaccine, for dogs only, that can be administered before a dog ever comes into contact with a snake. It has been on the market about three years.
And it’s far more inexpensive and readily available than antivenom. Dakota Hills gives out a “couple hundred” doses every summer, at $22 apiece, Ireland said.
It’s not a magic cure-all, she cautioned. Pets still swell up and get sick, but the vaccine significantly reduces the duration.
“Just anecdotally, it does seem like they get better quicker,” Ireland said. ”We do recommend it, and I vaccinate my own dogs for it.”
Encounters with the rattlers aren’t uncommon, Phillip said. Reptile Gardens gets anywhere between 15 and 20 calls per week about a rattler in someone’s yard.
Humans tend to create “little five-star hotels for them” with well-manicured and watered lawns, rock walls and vegetable gardens, he said.