One of the benefits of living in sunny San Diego—the quintessential fair weather city—is the year-round outdoor activities, including hiking. However, as the temperature heats up from Imperial Beach to Carlsbad, Poway to La Mesa, outdoor enthusiasts must take caution against rattlesnakes in the San Diego desert terrain.
“Since rattlesnakes are cold-blooded animals, they become more active as the outdoor temperatures rise,” said Dr. Aaron Lamoree, a veterinarian at The Drake Center in Encinitas, who has seen two cases of snakebite so far this season (both in March 2011).
According to Lt. Dan DeSouza with the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services, 933 rattlesnake-related complaints or requests for removal came in last year (July 2009 through June 2010). So far this season, 738 calls have come in, which is average.
“A compounding concern during the early spring is the fact that their bites are more poisonous at this time of year,” Lamoree said. “This is a consequence of reduced hunting activity during the cooler months and an increase in the amount of venom stored in their venom glands through the winter. As a result, the most likely time that our pets will cross paths with rattlesnakes is the exact time that their bites are most deadly.”
So, how do you protect yourself, your family and your pup?
The most important take-away: ”If you see a rattlesnake, you should turn and walk the other way or pass at a safe distance—do not disturb the snake, and be sure your pet is on a close leash,” said Lamoree, a Vista resident.
The easiest way to identify a rattlesnake is by the shape of its head, said DeSouza. If there is a definitive start and end to its body and his head is the shape of a diamond, it’s a rattlesnake.
In San Diego County, pets and people can come into contact with four species of rattlesnakes. “Any bite from these rattlesnakes should be treated as a medical emergency,” he said.
It is unusual for vets to see snakebites as early in the season as March, said Lamoree. “Summer is when we have historically seen the majority of bites.”
Hiking trails aren’t the only places to keep an eye out. Of Lamoree’s two canine patients, one was bitten in his owner’s backyard in San Elijo Hills (the other was bitten on a hiking trail in San Elijo Lagoon).
“Rattlesnakes can be almost anywhere,” he said. “Most rattlesnakes are active chiefly during the daytime, but may become nocturnal during hot days—they tend to like areas with warmth, but available shade. They also like to be in areas with food sources [such as rodents]—for example: sheds, garages, brushy areas.”
DeSouza said the most unusual rattlesnake complaint was in response to a rattlesnake that was wrapped around someone’s hot water heater.
With that, homeowners should beware in the warmer inland areas, such as Camp Pendleton, Santee and Ramona, and throughout the county.
“My kids love to play outdoors, but when the weather heats up, the rattlesnakes come out,” said Lindsay Santa, who lives in the country with her family of five in Ramona. “We have shown our kids (ages 7, 5 and 6 months) rattlesnakes; and brought them outside to hear the rattles and be able to recognize the sound of the rattles, if playing nearby.”
DeSouza said that the best thing to do to keep your home and yard free of rattlesnakes this summer is to make sure there aren’t any rodent problems and to eliminate wood piles, which is where rattlesnakes like to hide.
Pet owner recommendations provided by Lamoree include:
- Identify snake if easily done. Identification is helpful but not essential.
- Subdue or immobilize patient as much as possible. Activity increases uptake of venom.
- Remove collar if bite is near head or neck. Be careful not to be bitten or injured by your dog.
- Transport animal rapidly to veterinary facility. First-aid measures are of little value.
- Attempt to catch or kill the snake. The majority of rattlesnake bites to humans results from people trying to catch or kill snakes. Care must be taken because the decapitated head can envenomate for up to 90 minutes.
- Cut the wound, use tourniquet, or apply ice. These measures increase tissue damage.
As it relates to your pet, some result to shock therapy to train Fido against snake bites, even though there are many sides to this aversion training method. Some swear by it as it has a relatively high success rate. But because many rattlesnake bites are completely accidental—a dog stepping in a bush and being caught by surprise—it’s not entirely necessary, not to mention that the training modality is frowned upon by many in the veterinary industry.
A rattlesnake vaccine was released in 2004, but “its usefulness is in question,” said Lamoree. “To date, there is little published evidence regarding the efficacy of this vaccine and many toxicologists remain skeptical. As a result, most veterinarians do not routinely administer the vaccine. Avoidance is the best way to prevent a life-threatening situation for your pet.”
Looking for the hiking spots closest to you, or within a short drive? Check out Patch.com’s sister site City’s Best San Diego for a hiking story including: Cowles Mountain, Lake Poway to Mount Woodson, Florida Canyon (east of Balboa Park), Clevenger Canyon/San Pasqual Valley (near San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, aka Wild Animal Park).
There are dozens of local hiking trails, visit San Diego Hikers for suggestions. However, don’t forget to yield to the serpent warnings and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.