Over the past weekend, one of my mother’s horses reminded us that it is snake season again. Poor Robyn greeted my mom at the pasture gate with a sore and swollen nose - with two little puncture marks on her lip with blood dripping out. Being in California, our horses are among the unlucky bunch that have to share space with the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, a pit viper prevalent in most of the western and south western United States. Lucky for Robyn, this species of rattlesnake has far less toxic venom than other rattlesnakes, such as the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that calls the southeastern United States home. No matter which kind of snake you may be living around, there are some general facts that we should all use to keep us on our toes so that all parties (us, the horses, and the snakes) can coexist safely.
Spring for most snakes means that babies hatch and slither their way out into the world. Combined with excessive green grass, little snakes are sure to come too close for comfort to our horses every now and then. But don’t let their small size fool you - baby snakes actually are considered to be as dangerous, if not more dangerous that adults due to their lack of ability to control the amount of venom that they express when they strike. In other words - when babies bite - they give you everything they’ve got!
For those who live in snake endemic areas, the snake “spook” factor is high as we clean pens or venture out on trails. Many choose to wear thick leather boots or rubber boots when out and about on the farm - although none of these are complete insurance against the bite of a full grown (4 foot long!) adult rattlesnake. Of course, we always keep our ears tuned for the trademark “rattle” that lets us know we are too close for comfort.
Our horses are somewhat lucky in the sense that the majority are bit on the nose or on a distal limb. The silver lining to being bit in these locations is… frankly… they will likely survive it. If a horse were to be bitten in a major muscle group such as the neck, chances of survival are far lower than if bitten on an appendage.
When bitten on the nose, the area will begin to swell immediately. The pain is also excruciating. Below are some tips to help owners deal with the problem.
1. If you know or suspect that your horse has been bitten- call the vet immediately because time is of the essence if you want a successful medical outcome. Why? Because the vet can give medication that can stop the swelling to some degree! The earlier it is on board, the less pain and swelling the horse will have to endure.
2. Always keep your horse vaccinated for tetanus - this vaccine has to be given at least once annually. Horses that are lucky enough to survive the toxicosis of a rattlesnake bite may end up succumbing to tetanus due to the damaged body tissue that the venom has destroyed.
3. Venomous snake bites often require the horse to be on antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications for days to weeks. This is because the inflammation can be severe, and because chances of secondary infection are high. The challenge comes when the horse’s face and mouth are too swollen for it to really eat anything. In some cases, the horse must be given daily injections of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to get through the ordeal.
4. Avoid touching the affected area! We always want to poke the sore spot - over and over and OVER again. Give your horse a break - the pain is bad enough as it is. Remember to be extra careful when haltering and leading your horse too - sliding anything over a bitten area is going to hurt.
5. You may have to elevate your horses feed source and feed mash for several days. The swelling is so painful and severe in some cases, that the horse simply cannot bite and chew hay. Having soupy pellets on hand may help get through the rough patch (usually 5 to 7 days following the bite).
6. In extreme cases in which the nasal passages are extensively swollen, veterinarians have had to cut holes in the horse’s trachea (windpipe) midway down the ventral portion of the neck in order to secure an airway. All the more reason to call the vet and get them out STAT to deal with a snakebite.
There is a rattlesnake vaccine for horses on the market. It is somewhat costly and must be given twice a year. It cannot guarantee survival, but does mitigate some of the severity of signs if your horse happens to be bit in a location that does not result in death. For those who inhabit a high traffic rattlesnake environment, it may be money well spent.