There have been many stories in the media recently about rattlesnake sightings and even more frightening about victims of rattlesnake bites. In the past few weeks alone, several Search and Rescue (SAR) teams have been deployed to rescue bite victims stranded in rural areas.
This winter’s rains have led to a lot of vegetation growth, which attracts rattlesnake prey such as mice and other rodents, which means a very active rattler season. With an abundance of food to feast on, snakes will be able to survive longer and therefore people will see more of them.
Rattlesnakes are widespread in California and are found in a variety of habitat throughout the state from the coast to the desert. If you enjoy outdoor activities, you and your pets may be at risk for encountering rattlesnakes.
While generally not aggressive, rattlesnakes will usually retreat if not provoked or threatened. Most bites occur when a rattlesnake is accidentally touched by someone hiking, walking, or climbing.
A rattlesnake bite can cause painful swelling, bleeding and bruising, but are rarely fatal, according to the California Poison Control System. Those most at risk for potentially deadly impacts are children and pets. Victims of rattlesnake bites should seek immediate medical attention at an emergency room.
Having a plan in place for responding to any situation is extremely important. This is especially true when venturing out in a secluded rural area where emergency medical care is limited. Rattlesnakes tend to like rural and wilderness areas, which is why SAR teams are often dispatched to assist with finding victims. Even though most SAR teams have medically trained personnel to administer first aid, transportation to a medical facility will likely be necessary.
However, rattlesnakes are not confined to rural areas. They have been found in urban areas such as parks and on golf courses. They can even show up around our homes and in our yards. Since, rattlesnakes can’t regulate their body temperature, they may use lakes or rivers to cool down.
Overall, rattlesnakes are an important part of the ecosystem as they eat rodents and are eaten by other predators. The chances of being bitten are small compared to the risk of other environmental injuries and should not deter you from venturing outdoors.
Despite the headlines, it’s possible to live and recreate safely around rattlers by taking precautions. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends:
- Be alert. Like all reptiles, rattlesnakes are sensitive to the ambient temperature and will adjust their behavior accordingly. After a cold or cool night, they will attempt to raise their body temperature by basking in the sun midmorning. To prevent overheating during hot days of spring and summer, they will become more active at dawn, dusk or night.
- Wear sturdy boots and loose-fitting long pants. Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through brushy, wild areas. Startled rattlesnakes may not rattle before striking defensively.
- Children should not wear flip-flops while playing outdoors in snake country.
- When hiking, stick to well-used trails. Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.
- Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see. Step ON logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood. Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out sleeping bags before use.
- Never grab “sticks” or “branches” while swimming in lakes and rivers. Rattlesnakes can swim.
- Be careful when stepping over doorsteps as well. Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side.
- Never hike alone. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.
- Do not handle a freshly killed snake, as it can still inject venom.
- Teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them alone.
- Leash your dog when hiking in snake country. Dogs are at increased risk of being bitten due to holding their nose to the ground while investigating the outdoors. Speak to your veterinarian about canine rattlesnake vaccines and what to do if your pet is bitten.
- Carry a cell phone and make sure that family or friends know where you are going and when you will be checking in.
In the event of a rattlesnake bite:
- Call 9-1-1. Be prepared to give your location. If you’re in a rural or wildness area, locate identifying markers such mountains, lakes, rivers, etc. and inform the dispatcher.
- Stay calm but act quickly.
- Remove watches, rings, etc., which may constrict swelling.
- Transport the victim to the nearest medical facility.
- DON’T apply a tourniquet.
- DON’T pack the bite area in ice.
- DON’T cut the wound with a knife or razor.
- DON’T use your mouth to suck out the venom.
- DON’T let the victim drink alcohol.