With the first local rattlesnake bite patient of 2021 treated at Mark Twain Medical Center (MTMC) over the weekend, the season of avoiding tall grass is officially here.
Rattlesnakes are waking up from hibernation and female snakes are giving birth to baby rattlers, which also possess dangerous venom.
Calaveras County’s hospital saw five rattlesnake bites last year with the first occurring in May. According to Emergency Department Director Kristine Dittman, that number is slightly less than average—likely due to people staying home during the pandemic.
As most residents are aware, the California foothills are heavily populated by the rattlesnake, which is the only venomous snake native to the state. It serves an important role in the ecosystem, feeding on rodents, birds and other small animals. It is best identified by its triangle-shaped head and a sprinkler-like hiss produced by the rattle at the end of its tail (though it doesn’t always make noise before striking).
However, baby rattlesnakes, which often pose a greater threat to bite victims due to the amount of venom they might inject, are less distinctive in appearance. A baby rattlesnake is born with just one rattle segment, called a button.
“The older the snake, the smarter it is. It doesn’t waste venom,” Dittman said. “Baby snakes are the worst.”
Valley Springs resident Alexis Hellam learned first-hand just how bad those babies can be. About two years ago, her son, Andrew, had a close encounter with a young rattler.
“My son was playing out in the field, and the dog sensed the rattlesnake,” Hellam said. “The dog jumped in front of my son, who was almost 4 years old, and took the hit of the rattlesnake.”
Hellam said her dog, Polly, started to swell up. She called veterinarians within four counties to find someone who could treat snakebites. She finally found one in Shingle Springs. Thankfully, Polly made a full recovery.
Some of the rattlesnake bites treated at MTMC each year are “dry bites,” meaning a snake bit the victim but did not inject any venom. However, baby rattlesnakes usually don’t hold back when they bite.
“A rattlesnake bite can produce painful swelling, bruising, tissue destruction, bleeding problems and, in rare cases, can be fatal. Most bites occur between the months of April and October,” the California Poison Control System (CPCS) explains. Over 300 cases of rattlesnake bites are reported annually to CPCS, with additional cases managed by physicians and hospitals.
A rattlesnake bite is always a 911 emergency and usually results in a several-day hospital stay, Dittman said. Speedy treatment with antivenom, painkillers and close monitoring of the bite area are needed to prevent serious complications.
The CPCS warns that brush and bushes, rocks and open pipes are common places for bites to occur, especially among curious children. Dittman added that rattlesnakes almost always bite extremities—arms and legs that unknowingly trespass into its territory. Most bites treated at MTMC occurred while the victim was gardening, walking near a body of water or in dry brush.
According to Dittman, the first thing to do in the case of a snake bite after calling 911 is remove anything below the bite—a ring, a bracelet, a shoe—that could be constricting when the wound begins to swell.
“Do not apply ice, do not use a tourniquet or constricting band, do not try to suck out the venom, and do not use any device to cut or slice the bite,” the CPCS advises. “Keep calm, do not run and keep the affected extremity elevated during transport to a medical facility.
For canine friends who are at particularly high risk of a snake encounter, many veterinarians carry rattlesnake antivenom and vaccines for dogs and other pets.
Of course, the best way to prevent a bite is to avoid rattlesnakes altogether. Knowing where rattlesnakes dwell and taking precautions like wearing long pants and boots, staying on trails away from brush and inspecting objects before moving them or sitting down can lower the risk.
The CPCS also recommends hiking with a partner and warns never to touch or disturb a snake, even if it appears dead. Young children, especially, should be taught to respect snakes and to leave them alone.
“Children need to be carefully supervised outside, especially in wooded and desert areas where snakes tend to live,” the CPCS website reads.