Expert offers tips for rattlesnake encounters

The Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (black, left) is the only venomous snake in Santa Clarita. Matt Fernandez/ The Signal

While snakes might be a threat to the family pet, they’re also essential to the local ecosystem, and most don’t pose a threat without provocation, according to a local wildlife expert.

And there are a few tips that can help people avoid such a confrontation.

“I do appreciate that a lot of people in Santa Clarita see these predators as essential because they help eat a lot of pests and rodents, but sometimes people do kill snakes without knowing this,” said Frank Hoffman, recreation services leader at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. “Snakes are not harmful or dangerous unless you mess with them. I understand that it’s important to protect your family and pets, but I would prefer for people to drive the snake away or scare it rather than killing it.”

Santa Clarita is home to many kinds of snakes including gopher snakes, king snakes, racers, a species of boa and garter snakes. The only local species that is considered potentially dangerous to humans is the Southern Pacific rattlesnake, which is venomous.

Rattlesnakes can be easily differentiated from non-venomous snakes through a quick visual inspection. Venomous snakes like rattlesnakes have a triangular head, a slim neck, wide body and a blunt tail, with the rattlesnake’s tail ending in its namesake rattle made out of modified scales. Non-venomous snakes have narrow heads that are barely distinguishable from their necks, narrow bodies that are generally uniform in width and thin tails that taper to a point.

Non-venomous snakes can and most likely will bite when threatened; however, bites from these snakes are usually minor and with careful monitoring only require a wash with soap and water. Bites can become infected if a tooth breaks off into the bitten area, so if this happens seek medical attention.

Victims of rattlesnake bites may experience pain and swelling at the bite site, numbness, involuntary shaking, trouble breathing, paralysis, nausea, blurred vision and occasionally loss of consciousness. Hoffman said the best thing for victims to do is to stay calm, call an ambulance as soon as possible and resist all temptation to self-medicate or drive oneself to the hospital due to the risk of losing consciousness while driving.

“If you get bitten by a rattlesnake, don’t take any medication, don’t ice it, don’t put a tourniquet and we do not cut and suck the poison out because that’s just an old wives’ tale,” Hoffman said. “Take off any watches, bracelets or anything that might act as a constricting band because we don’t want to localize the damage done by the venom to a single area. Time is tissue, and the longer you wait before calling 9-1-1, the more tissue damage you’ll have.”

Hoffman said that after being bitten, some people try to catch the snake that bit them to show a doctor, but this is dangerous and unnecessary. The antivenom used at hospitals, CroFab, is a cocktail of antivenom effective against four different kinds of snakes including rattlesnakes.

Pets are also at risk of being bitten by snakes so it is important to ensure that your chosen veterinarian is equipped to treat bites or can refer you to a facility that is. Hoffman said that dogs often survive bites because they are quick to alert their owners about their pain, but more solitary animals like cats run and hide after being bitten and often die. Grazing animals like horses have especially high mortality rates because they are often bitten on their snouts, and then these areas swell and block off the animal’s airways, leading to suffocation.

Snakes, like any animal, will congregate where they can find plentiful food, water and shelter arranged in an easily accessible way. Areas with plentiful fruits or grains, like near fruit trees, bird feeders or barns, are very attractive to rodents, which are a favorite food source for snakes, so it is important to be extra wary when in areas like this.

To prevent snakes from inhabiting their property, Hoffman says homeowners can ensure that dog doors and garage doors are not kept open when in use and to limit wildlife’s access to food by not leaving it out, and keeping garbage bins closed. It is much harder to spot snakes in heavy brush, so clearing unnecessary plant material is essential to avoiding snake bites. Snakes are also attracted to pools, ponds, fountains or other water fixtures on their property so it is important to note that snakes are able to swim.

Snakes also like to hide in small crevices like inside rock piles and wood piles. Rattlesnakes will not always give a warning rattle before striking, so be careful when working near these areas and do not let children stand or play near them to prevent them from getting bitten.

For hikers, Hoffman recommends always staying on trails where the area around their feet is clear and any snakes will be clearly visible. When rock climbing, always watch where you’re putting your hands because snakes may be resting or sunning themselves unseen on a rock ledge. It is also a good idea to bring a fully charged cell phone and to let others know when and where you are going, with the most exact geographical location possible, so if you do not return in a reasonable time, help can be sent.

Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital will offer a free community education program on “Hiking and Venomous Snake Bite Prevention and Treatment” on Friday, June 21.

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About the author

Matt Fernandez

Matt Fernandez

Matt Fernandez is a local news reporter for The Signal. He is a 2017 graduate of UCLA and his previous work experience includes the Daily Bruin newspaper and Variety magazine, where he focused on arts and entertainment news. Fernandez has lived in Santa Clarita since 1998.