The Truth about Rattlesnake Bites
Rattlesnakes can be dangerous reptiles and should be given proper respect. Yet, respect can, and should, be different than fear. Like many wild animals we can potentially encounter in the field, rattlesnakes present far less risk to humans than many other things we face in our daily lives.
Rattlesnake bites in which venom is injected are pretty rare and kill only 5-6 people a year out of the 7-8,000 venomous snake bites that occur [link to reference in article]. You’re actually more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be killed by rattlesnake. Taking this a step further, medical facilities estimate that anywhere from 25-50% of rattlesnake bites are known as ‘dry bites’ - which means that there is no venom injected at the time of the bite.
Legitimate vs. Illegitimate bites
Doctors classify rattlesnake envenomations into two categories. These are legitimate bites and illegitimate bites. Looking at rattlesnake bites which are ‘legitimate’ these are a far cry less than those which are considered ‘illegitimate.’
What is a legitimate bite? This is when the person unaware of their surroundings typically surprises a rattlesnake and is bitten. These bites occur somewhere between the foot and knee in most cases and involves the envenomated party stepping onto the snake. An illegitimate bit is one that occurs somewhere between the tips of the fingers and the elbow. Now why would that happen? Well, most times it involves alcohol and several friends. Illegitimate bites are ones where the person (typically a male between the ages of 18-30 and intoxicated) is envenomated because they are attempting to handle the snake.
We do not condone the handling of any venomous snake without proper training and tools that should always be used when dealing with venomous snakes of any kind. These tools are often tongs, snake hooks, and tubes. Please do not purchase this equipment with the idea that you can practice with your Corn Snake Pantherophis guttatus and consider yourself ready to handle a rattlesnake in the wild. It doesn’t work that way.
Envenomation Treatment: Past and Present
When people first began to colonize the New World they encountered rattlesnakes and some of them were bitten and envenomated. Due to the lack of understanding about venom and what it does to the human body they theorized that the reaction brought on by envenomation was the angry spirit of the snake itself. Today with our medical technologies being so advanced we now understand that venom itself is modified saliva full of all kinds of proteins and other chemicals that are specifically designed to react to cells within the body. Some are anticoagulants while other venoms are just the opposite and cause massive clots in the bloodstream and these are just some of the haemotoxic venom properties. Neurotoxic venoms can cause paralysis as well as shut down nerve impulses to specific organs such as the diaphragm and attack the central nervous system causing a host of issues.
Treatment methods of envenomation have changed dramatically over the past 100 years or so and some of the popular methods are still touted in the more rural communities of America. The most popular and more commonly known is the ‘cut and suck method.’ This involves a friend cutting two small incisions in the shape of X over each fang mark and the proceeding to suck out the venom and then spitting it out. Now then, while this may seem a valid treatment it is not and is potentially more dangerous than the actual evenomation itself. The reason for its potential danger is that your friend could accidently cut a vein or artery or just cut too deep on say a haemotoxic envenomation in which the blood is not coagulating properly and therefore cause more bleeding.
The next method of treatment is the tourniquet which is applied above the actual bite wound. This is to restrict the flow of venom through the body. Which for all intents and purposes it does, but this treatment also restricts the flow of blood and compartmentalizes the venom to one specific area and with haemotoxic venoms this causes issues as the haemotoxic venom will also include enzymes which digest the flesh as well. This may lead to amputation of the limb by the time you reach a medical facility that will be able to treat for envenomations.
Another method which became popular later on were venom extractors which when I was growing up were nothing more than two pieces of hollow rubber with the contents of the snake bite kit inside which consisted of an exacto type blade and bandage as well as instructions. The idea from what I remember was that you would cut the X over the fang marks and then apply the rubber tubing and squeeze repeatedly. Thus the venom would be extracted into the tube and expelled once the seal with the skin was broken.
The newest product in the Venom extractors is the Sawyer Venom Extractor which is highly praised by many. However, it’s also got its detractors and one of those that I trust above all else is Dr. Sean P. Bush of Loma Linda University and star of Venom E.R. Snakebite Suction Devices Don’t Remove Venom: They Just Suck.
After reading this piece many people will ask ‘How do I treat a rattlesnake envenomation?’ The best answer is to remove yourself from the range of the snake and identify it as best as possible without trying to capture it. Remain as calm as possible and then call 911.
Most importantly, prevention is key. It is a good practice to never go hiking alone. If you must go alone, tell someone your plans and carry a cell phone in case you need to contact help in an emergency. Prevention is a simple thing that may very well save your life, not just from a rattlesnake but any number of things can happen while you’re out there. Be aware of your surroundings and enjoy the outdoors!
Read John's Article: Snakes on the Trail
About John F. Taylor
John F. Taylor is the former Founder of Southern California Wildlife, and not only is he an amateur herpetologist, but also an expert on San Diego-based reptiles and their habitat. Additionally, he has extensive experience with exotic species from all over the world. He has worked within the pet industry for over a decade and served as Editor for the San Diego Herpetological Society. He's personally handled well over 200 various species. His articles appear in multiple media environments; most recently several of his articles have appeared within the industry-respected Reptilia Magazine, a renowned European publication and Reptile Magazine as well as Reptiles and Reptiles USA published by Bow Tie publications.
He's also published “Captive Care of Uromastyx” through T.F.H. This summer will see the launch of new book series on the captive care of reptiles and insect pets. To see his most current work you can go to www.reptileapartment.com "My main goal is to educate people living in small environments, primarily apartments, on the unique challenges of keeping a reptile or insect. There’s an alarming lack of actionable data on this topic and a lack of information or an abundance of misinformation is impacting the quality of life for reptiles and insects everywhere."