2008-05-08 / Pets

Each springtime brings out more rattlers, and more curious canines are being bitten

By Nancy Needham nancy@theacorn.com

An abundance of rattlesnakes is keeping rattlesnake wrangler Bo Slyapich and local veterinarians busy this spring.

"I thought last year was real bad with lots of rattlesnakes, but this year is a whole lot worse," said Slyapich.

He said he doesn't know what's caused the increase in rattlesnake encroachment on human territory, but in his 45 years of protecting people from rattlesnakes, he said he's never seen anything like it. His first call this year came on March 8, and he's stayed busy around the clock ever since, he said.

"If you build it, they will come. Rattlesnakes look at your home as an oasis for them," the Calabasas resident said.

Family pets, especially dogs, have taken a big hit this year. Many have died from rattlesnake bites, their owners unable to get their pet to the veterinarian's office in time for antivenin treatments.

"I've seen vet bills for rattlesnake bites as high as $2,400," Slyapich said.

Pet Emergency Clinic chief of staff Tim Crowe, MD and DVM, said pet hospital costs can go higher- as high as the $10,000 range- with hyperbolic chamber treatments, transfusions, ventilator assistance and other specialized care. Such hospital care for a human without insurance would cost $100,000 or more, he said.

It's important to get an animal that's been bitten by a snake to a veterinarian immediately.

"There is the golden hour," Crowe said.

Of course, how much time a dog has depends on where it was bitten, how much venom the snake expelled, how big the dog is and other factors.

"A tongue wound is an unlucky bite for the dog," Crowe said.

This time of year the snakes have awakened from hibernation and have lots of venom stored, making them more dangerous, he said. Another concern is that rattlesnakes have been crossbreeding, he said. One type may have venom that keeps the blood from clotting and another may paralyze a victim. If the snake's venom has the poisonous qualities of both the Pacific and Mojave rattlesnake, the bite is more deadly.

If bitten, the animal must be kept as calm and quiet as possible, and taken to a vet immediately, Crowe said.

The Thousand Oaks Pet Emergency Clinic, open 24 hours, has seen almost double the number of rattlesnake bite victims so far this year over last, a staff member said. They treat about two to five dogs a day for rattlesnake bites, she said.

There are rattlesnake poison vaccines on the market that can be given to a dog as a part of a prevention program. Still, if a dog is bitten, it should get immediate medical care.

"Avoidance training has proven to be good," Crowe said. Trainers teach dogs to stay away from rattlesnakes. Without such training, dogs, naturally curious creatures, are often bitten on or around the face, he said.

National Park Service Park Ranger Mike Malone said there have been reports of rattlesnakes coming down to a stone and wood structure at the Newbury Park Rancho Sierra Vista park area. The rattlesnakes are relocated back up in the hills, he said.

He suggests hikers stay on trails where they can more easily see snakes and pointed out rattlesnakes are another good reason to keep dogs on leashes.

Other suggestions for safe hiking include not hiking alone, carrying a cellphone, wearing hiking boots and loose-fitting pants to deflect a snake's fangs and being aware of surroundings. If a snake is spotted, stay at least 6 feet away, even if the reptile looks dead.

When gardening, wear high boots and don't put your hand in a place you can't see, Slyapich said.

Take notice if your dog is barking at a bush, Crowe suggested. "It could be a squirrel or it might be a rattlesnake."

Dangers that may be less interesting to read about but pose a greater threat to pets than rattlesnakes are snail bait and rat poison, which dogs and other animals can also find tasty. They're both deadly, Crowe said.

Brenda Ellis, office manager of the emergency clinics, said "Our veterinary technicians have told me that at the beginning of the year, poisoning was twice as likely as a rattlesnake bite, but within the last three weeks rattlesnake bites have doubled the number of poisonings."

Slug and snail bait are the most common poisons because most people know to be careful with rat poison, Ellis said.

For more information, call Slyapich (818) 880-4269 or go to www.rattlesnakewrangler .com.

Thousand Oaks Pet Emergency Clinic is at 2967 N. Moorpark Road. Call (805) 497-2436 or visit the website www. petemergencyclinic.com.

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