Lethbridge rattlesnake expert cautions pet owners to keep animals on-leash

By Lara Fominoff and Aaron Mahoney/Lethbridge News Now
May 16, 2018 - 10:02am

LETHBRIDGE, AB – The rattlesnakes are out, and they're leaving their winter dens to make their way to their summer dens.

That means more potential interaction with pets and humans, and Lethbridge's rattlesnake expert Ryan Heavy Head is urging caution, especially for pet owners.

Monday evening, Heavy Head received at least three calls about rattlesnakes on, or near well-marked trails in the Riverstone area. In the last week, he's take about a dozen calls.

"People often don't think the rattlesnakes are already out, you know, right when it warms up. The rule of thumb for me is, if you see people riding around on motorcycles, the rattlesnakes are out. So, they've been out for a few weeks trickling their way out of the dens. And now, they're moving away in force from their dens."

 He says everyone who walks their dogs in the subdivisions along the west-side coulees should be particularly cautious right now.

"I'm concerned about Riverstone in particular, because I see dog walker after dog walker on the trail. And most of the times they're off leash."

Heavy Head posted a warning on his "Rattlesnakes of Lethbridge" Facebook page, after he learned that an off-leash dog was bitten by a rattlesnake.

"Maybe five, ten minutes after I posted the warning, somebody tagged me in a post on a pet network, that somebody's dog got bitten. It doesn't surprise me, cause there were a bunch of people walking dogs off leash that evening."

Heavy Head says the actual established paths are fairly safe, and the low-cut grass around them makes it easier to spot rattlesnakes if they're close by.

But when the animals are off leash and go exploring in the taller grass and in holes, that's when they can get in trouble.

"Walk your dog on the established path, leashed. And if your dog goes off the path, make sure you pay attention, especially if the dog acts strange. Be on alert, because there might be a snake there."

If a dog is bitten, in Heavy Head's experience, while extremely painful for the dog and traumatic for owners, canines can generally bounce back from a bite better than humans.

"There's only been one documented, direct death of a dog from a rattlesnake bite in Lethbridge in the last decade. And that one, the veterinarian thought that the dog was injected intravenously, which changes the game. Most of the time when a snake bites, it gets in the muscle and there's a lot of swelling and pain. And dogs, less than 24 hours and they're usually home. They're ok."

Anti-venom is extremely expensive to produce, says Heavy Head. It typically costs anywhere from $3,500 to $4,000 per vial. A human that has been bitten may need anywhere from 10 to 15 vials for treatment.

Even for pets, he says if a local veterinarian does have anti-venom, it's rare, because it's so expensive, and it may cost up to $30,000 to treat the animal. 

Notley ready to "turn off the taps"