Bites, Treatment and More: What to Know About Rattlesnakes in Southern California

Rattlesnakes generally want nothing to do with humans, but here's what to know if you or your dog encounter one.

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Rattlesnake encounters are rare, but it's that time of year when they become more likely in Southern California.

Warmer and dry weather means more people outside, many of whom are enjoying the region's hiking trails. Spring is also the time when rattlesnakes become more active after what can be months of solitude and inactivity during cool winter weather.

Most bites occur between April and October, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, so we are well into rattlesnake season. And while bites are a concern, rattlesnakes also contribute to healthy biodiversity and help keep the country's small rodent population in check.

Here's what to know about rattlesnake encounters in Southern California.

What should I do if I encounter a rattlesnake?

First off, rattlesnakes just aren't that into you. They generally are not aggressive and would rather avoid people. They'll often retreat if given space to move and don't feel threatened. Most bites happen when someone handles or accidentally touches a rattlesnake, which even offers a warning with its rattle that you might be too close.

What do rattlesnakes look like?

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The tell-tale sign of a rattlesnake is on the end of its tail. But rattlesnakes don't always rattle before a strike. A rattle might also break off, and young rattlesnakes might only have a small rattle or button. As snakes shed their skin, a new rattle segment is formed. Other visual characteristics include a triangular head and scales that are keeled with a rough raised texture and matte appearance instead of smooth and shiny. They are earth tone, which helps them blend in with their surroundings.

When are rattlesnakes most active?

In spring and summer, you're most likely to encounter a rattlesnake at dawn, dusk and night as they avoid the warmest parts of the day. In fall and winter, some rattlesnakes enter a dormant state with periods of inactivity that can last months. This period of inactivity is usually spent in rock crevices, burrows or thick brush.

Are all rattlesnake bites venomous?

No. Creating venom requires energy, so a rattlesnake might deliver what's known as a non-venomous dry bite as a warning. The fangs fold back against the roof of the mouth, then descend when a rattlesnake is ready to inject venom. It's best to treat all bites as venomous and seek medical attention.

Each year, about 7,000–8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States, and about five die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Where are rattlesnakes found in California?

Rattlesnakes can be found from California's coast to its deserts. Around homes, they might be found in brush or under wood piles. They're not keen on being around humans, but rattlesnakes will come out into the open to bask in the sun's warmth. That might include sunny areas on or near hiking trails.

What are venomous rattlesnake bite symptoms?

The following are common symptoms of a venomous rattlesnake bite, according to the California Poison Control System.

  • Extreme pain
  • Bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Swelling in the mouth and throat
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Swelling at the location of the bite
  • Collapse
  • Shock, in rare cases

How are rattlesnake bites treated?

First of all, stay calm but act quickly. A venomous bite can cause severe injuries and even death.

  • Remove items that construction swelling, like watches, rings and shoes.
  • Go to the nearest medical center.
  • Do not put ice on the bite.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Do not cut the wound.
  • Do not try to suck venom out with your mouth.

More rattlesnake safety tips

Here's more safety advice from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

  • Stay alert when outdoors.
  • Wear sturdy boots and loose-fitting long pants. DO NOT wear sandals or flip-flops in brushy areas.
  • Stay on well-used trails. Avoid tall grass, weeds, and heavy underbrush.
  • Check rocks, stumps or logs before sitting down.
  • Shake out sleeping bag and tent before use.
  • Let others know where you are going, when you plan to return, and carry a cell phone. Hike with a companion when possible.
  • Do not grab “sticks” in water. Rattlesnakes can swim.
  • Do not try to touch or handle a snake, dead or alive. They might still inject venom shortly after death.

What if a rattlesnake bites my dog?

Leading with their noses while sniffing the ground, a dog might come face-to-face with a rattlesnake concealed among rocks, tall grass or brush. Contact a veterinarian as soon as possible for treatment, which might involve an antivenin.

Signs of non-venomous bite might include a pair of puncture wounds from the fangs and swelling around the bite that doesn't significantly progress. Clinical signs of a venomous bite include extensive swelling that spreads quickly, bleeding due to the venom's anticoagulant properties, and a pair of large fang marks. Those marks might be difficult to see if the wound is already swollen. On the way to the veterinarian, make sure your dog doesn't aggravate the wound. Carry the dog, if possible, and try to keep the bite area at or below heart level to reduce blood flow to the area.

Again, prevention is the best option. Keeping a dog on leash during hikes can keep it from finding trouble. Rattlesnake aversion training classes also help a dog learn to avoid the sound of a rattlesnake.

How does a rattlesnake rattle?

The rattle segments at the end of the rattlesnakes tail are hollow. They rattle against each other, producing the rattling sound when the tail is vigorously shaken.

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