Don’t be rattled

Rattlesnakes still out and about
Katherine Sears
Managing Editor
Friday, September 16, 2022
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If you’re a hunter or outdoorsmen in Central Montana, chances are you’ve come across a rattlesnake at some point. If you haven’t, it’s likely you’ve crossed their path and not even known it. 

Montana’s only native venomous snake can be found in a variety of environments, but they favor open and arid country, typically below 6,500 feet. For reference, Lewistown sits at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. May through October are the reptile’s most active months, and they will head for the den when temperatures dictate it. 

There are many different species of rattlesnakes, but Montana is home to the Prairie Rattlesnake. They’re considered ectotherms, which means they are cold-blooded and rely on their surroundings to heat and cool their body temperature. Therefore, they can’t be active in cold weather. 

However, it hasn’t been quite cold enough yet this fall for them to permanently head for their winter den. This means there is still a chance for rattlesnake encounters, especially for outdoorsmen, hunters, and their dogs.  

“When they go to the den is temperature-related,” said Stephen Vantassel, vertebrate pest specialist for the Montana Department of Agriculture. “Temperatures down into the 50s makes life kind of hard for ectotherms.” 

Cooler temps make movement harder for the snakes, which drive them to seek warmth to bring their body temperatures up. This is also true in summer months. When they cannot handle the heat, they’ll seek shade. 

Right now, the snakes are likely to be most active during late afternoons, or the warmest part of the day.

“Hunters should be aware that warmer afternoons will bring out snakes looking to bask,” said Vantassel.

This also increases the chance for the snakes to bite, something they do as a defense mechanism when surprised, threatened, or injured. The reptile is named for its “rattle” located at the end of its tail, which it uses to warn potential aggressors or to distract prey. 

For humans, this is the most common way to identify a rattlesnake in the general vicinity. However, it is not uncommon for them not to rattle, according to MSU Extension Wildlife Special Jared Beaver. 

“Often if a snake thinks it is unseen, it will not rattle in hopes of simply being left alone,” said Beaver. 

The snakes can also lose their rattles, leaving humans with less warning. While Vantassel notes the snakes are not looking to bite, if they feel threatened, they can strike. 

“Most bites occur between May and September, and in the late afternoon,” said Vantassel. 


Rattlesnake 101

There’s no tried and true method to completely avoid the slithery reptiles, but there are steps humans can take to mitigate encounters, or even the effects of a bite. 

Pay attention to your surroundings, and if you come across a snake, leave it alone. Although you may feel like you need to dispatch the snake, Vantassel said this actually puts the person more at risk of being bit. 

“When you see one, move away,” said Vantassel. “You’re actually more at risk trying to kill it.”

You can also dress appropriately, wearing boots that go above the ankle and tight-knit pants, such as heavy-duty denim. Vantassel also recommends the pants fit loosely.

“The snake doesn’t know there’s a gap between your leg and the pants,” said Vantassel. “This can provide significant protection, but of course, not 100 percent protection.” 

However, you can’t exactly tell a dog to listen for a rattle, move away, or don their loosest pair of Levi’s.  Since bird dogs especially will almost always have their nose to the ground, they are at much greater risk of things like snake bites. 

The majority of bites to hunting dogs occur to the head and neck, although some will be struck in a leg. This is probably one of every dog owners’ worst nightmares, and rightfully so. However, more often than not, the dog can be saved if taken to a veterinarian quickly enough. 

“It depends on the dog and where the bite is,” said Veterinarian Jordan Robbins at Horizon Vet in Lewistown. 

According to Vantassel, most dogs will retreat to their owner if bit. The owner can then check for swelling.

“It will bleed very little and the swelling will be fast and severe,” said Robbins. “That can cause difficulty breathing.” 

The owner should remove any collars or vests from the dog and seek care immediately. Once the venom is in the blood stream, it begins destroying red blood cells, which can cause clots and send an animal into organ failure. 

Dog owners are often under the impression they should administer an antihistamine, like Benadryl, but Robbins said that won’t necessarily help, as the cause of the swelling is different. 

“Once at the vet, the dog can be put on steroids and fluids to help their cardiovascular system,” said Robbins. 

As for using antivenom as a treatment, Robbins said many vets don’t carry the treatment due to its high cost and short shelf life. 

However, dogs can receive an annual vaccine for rattlesnake bites, and Robbins said this is common among bird hunters. 

“The vaccine allows the dog time to get to a veterinarian for treatment,” said Robbins. 

The most practical time for Central Montana bird dogs to receive the vaccine is August or the beginning of September, as antibodies are strongest around 30 days after injection. 


What should I do if bit?

As for humans who suffer a rattlesnake bite, Dr. Amy LePage with Central Montana Medical Center said it’s important to stay calm and get medical help right away. As with dogs, swelling can occur and you should remove anything constrictive in the area of the bite, including rings or watches. You can wash the wound with soap and water, but a tourniquet should not be applied and you should not attempt to cut, suction, or freeze the bite area.

“There are a lot of myths about what to do for a snake bite in the field but none of them have any good supporting evidence,” said LePage. “You really just need to get to the hospital.” 

You can try to take a picture of the snake from a safe distance to help with identification if you are uncertain if it is a rattlesnake.

“But do not try to bring the snake to the hospital,” warns LePage.

Hospital care varies depending on how severe the person’s symptoms are. In some cases patients may need antivenom treatment, which LePage said is typically available at the hospital in Lewistown.  

While the thought of a bite to a person or dog might be scary, experts say the risk of being bitten is low compared to other injuries that can occur outdoors, and it should not keep anyone from venturing outside.