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Snake Vaccine for dogs

While nothing can offer 100-percent protection from a rattlesnake bite, a new vaccine holds promise.

By E. Dan Klepper

Dog owners who routinely bring their canines along to hike, hunt or camp may already be familiar with the following scene: Cooter hits the brush wagging his tail and returns shortly thereafter yelping about a swelling nose or paw or something worse. Two small but nasty puncture holes mark his injury, a coiled rattler retreats nearby, and then a mad dash to the nearest vet for treatment completes the scenario. Some dogs survive the ordeal and some, unfortunately, don't. However, a vaccine now available through local vets may provide dogs with a certain amount of protection against rattlesnake venom. While nothing beats teaching a dog to avoid venomous snakes altogether, the new rattlesnake vaccine developed by Red Rock Biologics of Woodland, California, may give dogs a hedge against the damage caused by a venom-injecting rattlesnake bite.

Here is how the vaccine works:

  1. The vaccine contains a specific component found in rattlesnake venom. The component, however, has been inactivated.
  2. Once the vaccine is injected into the dog, this "inactive component" stimulates the dog's immune system to produce special antibodies. Antibodies come in all forms and are produced naturally by the body to fight against infections and diseases.
  3. These special antibodies remain in the dog's system for a period of time depending on the unique physiological characteristics of each dog. The average period is around six months. In addition, the vaccine stimulates "memory cells," which also make antibodies over a longer period of time.
  4. When a vaccinated dog is bitten by a rattlesnake and envenomated (injected with venom), the vaccine-induced antibodies present in the dog's system chemically bind to the venom and attempt to render it inactive. At the same time, the "memory cells" are stimulated to make more antibodies at a much faster rate than they did before. These antibodies also bind with the venom in an effort to neutralize the venom's harmful effects.
  5. While the vaccine doesn't eliminate the danger from the venom, it may reduce pain, minimize tissue damage, and lower the risk of any life-threatening complications that may result from envenomation.

"Many veterinarians believe the vaccine really does make a difference," says Dr. Dave Taylor, rural Texas veterinarian and co-owner of Fort Davis Veterinary Services. "Even if there are, as yet, no challenge studies in dogs, the vaccine company has done extensive mice-model testing to show a definite benefit. Also, we cannot ignore the growing number of anecdotal reports of reduced sickness and death in animals that are vaccinated.

This is not to say every dog that is vaccinated will survive a bite or will avoid getting sick from a bite. In fact, all vaccines protect only a certain percent of a population ... so that is not unusual. However, vaccinating, in most cases, seems like a very reasonable idea to help prevent the effects of a snake bite. I offer the vaccine to my clients for their dogs when I believe it might be useful. Dog owners should consult their own veterinarian if they want to learn more about it or see if it is recommended for their dog."

Even if a dog is vaccinated, dog owners should consider a snake bite an emergency and seek immediate medical attention for the dog. The rattlesnake vaccine is designed to reduce only the effects of envenomated bites from western diamondback rattle-snakes but may also help with other "hemotoxic" (meaning toxic to blood cells) envenomations from other rattlesnake species. But it does nothing for a Mojave rattlesnake bite. The Mojave's venom is a "neurotoxin," meaning it is toxic to nerves, and an envenomated bite frequently causes death.

Just like the results of the vaccine, most of the evidence to date regarding dog/rattle-snake encounters is anecdotal. No doubt many readers have their own stories. Some dogs are bitten and have little to no reaction. Other dogs experience the worst possible reaction. But the damage envenomation can do is severe and permanent. Any chance of mitigating the results should always be considered. Dog owners, however, need to make their own decision about vaccinating their dogs. They should make an effort to become informed, read any available literature on the new vaccine and then discuss their dog's options with a trusted veterinarian.

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