Rattlesnake vaccine for your dog – yes or no?

Dozer, who had not received the rattlesnake vaccine, was bitten by a rattlesnake in April, and is very lucky to be alive.
Dozer, who had not received the rattlesnake vaccine, was bitten by a rattlesnake in April, and is very lucky to be alive. Submitted Photo

Dozer is an 8-year-old, mixed breed dog bitten by a rattlesnake on April 29, 2017.

He was bitten twice on the face, above his eye and on the inside of his mouth. His owner was working a 12 hour shift and did not discover Dozer until much later in the day.

Dozer was rushed to the vet and spent many hours at both Hoof N Paw and the Fresno Pet E.R. He’s lucky to be alive, but the emotional and financial drain for his owner is ongoing.

Dozer had not received the Rattlesnake Vaccine.

Would the vaccine have made a difference in this very severe case? Maybe, or maybe not.

Rattlesnakes account for the majority of snakebite-related deaths in humans and domestic animals.

According to the Animal Medical Center of Southern California, dogs are 20 times more likely to be bitten by venomous snakes than humans, and are 25 times more likely to die as a result.

Snake bites are life-threatening, painful, can cause permanent damage to your dog and are very expensive to treat.

In our mountain community and surrounding foothills, it’s not uncommon to hear about dogs being bitten by rattlesnakes. Taking in to consideration the area in which we live and a dog’s natural curiosity, our local veterinarians are all too familiar with this type of emergency.

So, is there anything we can do to minimize the damage caused by a rattlesnake bite if it happens?

According to Red Rock Biologics there is.

They have developed Crotalus Atrox Toxoid (Rattlesnake Vaccine) for dogs. This was approved by the U.S.D.A. in 2004. It can be given to horses and dogs in an effort to reduce the adverse effects of bites and allow extra time to get to the vet’s office for conventional treatment.

How does it work?

According to the manufacturer, as part of its licensing process, this vaccine was shown in dogs to generate protective antibodies against rattlesnake venom. Dogs with protective antibodies are reported to experience less pain and have a reduced risk of permanent injury from a rattlesnake bite.

Veterinarians typically report that vaccinated dogs bitten by a rattlesnake experience less swelling, less tissue damage and faster recovery from a snake bite than unvaccinated dogs.

However, the vaccine does not preclude the need for immediate veterinary care.

It’s worth noting that the vaccine was developed using the venom of the Western Diamond Rattlesnake.

It is assumed to protect against related venoms such as Prairie, Great Basin and Northern and Southern varieties, Sidewinder, Timber Rattlesnake, Massasauga and Copperhead. (Whole Dog Journal, May 2015).

The initial vaccine should be given in early spring, the beginning of rattlesnake season. The first time your dog receives the vaccine, it needs to be boostered or given a second shot in one month.

Yearly vaccines are sufficient in most areas where rattlesnakes appear seasonally. If you live in an area where rattlesnakes are active all year long or you have a high-risk dog such as a herding dog or a search and rescue dog, you may want to consider boosters at six months.

The cost of the vaccine varies from $20-40 in the Fresno and Mountain Area.

So how well does the Rattlesnake Vaccine work?

There are two schools of thought on this but the general consensus on both sides seem to be in agreement that in may help. But that’s where the similarity ends.

On one side the opinion is there is not enough science-based evidence that the vaccine does what Red Rock Biologics says it does, and therefore not recommended.

The second thought is that it’s a valuable, potentially life-saving protectant for your dog and should be recommended.

So what’s the problem with the vaccine?

In researching for this article, I found the most common reasons for not recommending the vaccine were based on the lack of scientific evidence and data. We know it’s not fully protective and it may not mitigate the effects of a rattlesnake bite.

There are also a lot of variables as to how well it might work, such as the size of the snake, the amount of venom delivered, the size, age and health of the dog and the location of the bite, to name a few.

Also, there is the fact that there can be side effects and that both vaccinated and unvaccinated dogs still receive the same veterinary care. The lack of critical evidence that the vaccine actually works stops some vets from recommending it.

At this point most evidence of the success of the vaccine is anecdotal.

There are ongoing studies being done by Red Rock Biologics so this will probably change in the future.

So, let’s talk about the argument for the somewhat controversial vaccine.

According to Red Rock Biologics, the vaccine is designed to help the dogs develop antibodies. These antibodies are intended to help create an immunity that will protect your dog against the venom.

Unofficial accounts of dogs experiencing less pain and swelling with a faster recovery are common.

I spoke with Dr. Kevin Lazarcheff, the owner of Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital. He explained how the vaccine ties up the initial venom causing less damage and the potential for secondary complications such as bleeding, swelling and secondary infection.

Dr. Lazacheff spent 11 years practicing Emergency and Critical Care Veterinary Medicine in the Central Valley where it was typical to see four or five bites a week. With his extensive emergency room experience with rattlesnake bites, Dr. Lazarcheff had a broad opportunity to see the results of bites with and without the vaccine.

In his opinion, the vaccine definitely helps. Dr. Lazarcheff says dogs who have had the vaccine tend to do better than those that don’t.

He and his colleague, Dr. Mark Nagel, have recently been discussing the decline in snakebites they’ve seen in their office and believe it could be because more pet parents are vaccinating their dogs. In the case of a mild or dry bite it’s possible the owners never know their vaccinated dog was bitten. He informed me Red Rock Biologics has done a 2 year study and is going to be completing a 10 year study on the vaccine soon.

While waiting for scientific data to become available, it is common to study anecdotal reports and information.

My friend, Cindy and I were riding our horses on trail when her small border collie, Kyla, was bitten.

Because we never found a bite mark, we thought she was stung by a bee when her face became swollen. We were camping and Cindy didn’t get Kyla to a vet for two days. She had been bitten on the inside of her mouth. Her vet felt very strongly that Kyla did so well because she had been vaccinated.

I choose to have all three of my dogs vaccinated. Because of our outdoor lifestyle, I feel they are at a higher risk to see the business end of a rattler.

Am I buying a little peace of mind? Sure. But I won’t allow myself to have a false sense of security, either.

I think it’s safe to say the jury is still out on this one. The rattlesnake vaccine has its limitations but still has plenty of support from the veterinary community.

Hopefully soon our vets and the public will have accurate information based on long-term studies.

Until then, discuss this with your vet. It’s a personal decision you will need to make as your canine companion’s best advocate.