The Rattlesnake Vaccine for Dogs: Both Sides of the Story

Medical articles
rattlesnake warning sign

If your dog lives, plays, or accompanies you on hikes where rattlesnakes live, you may have heard and wondered about the rattlesnake vaccine, produced by Red Rock Biologics. It's no surprise that venomous snakes are a danger to our dogs and cats and can cause serious injury and death. According to the vaccine’s producer, approximately 300,000 dogs and cats are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the United States.

With numbers that high, you may wonder why this vaccine isn't strongly encouraged by veterinarians for at-risk dogs. Many concerns remain regarding the vaccine within the veterinary community.

How it Works

According to Red Rock Biologics, the vaccine generates protective antibodies against the rattlesnake venom, which neutralizes the venom itself. They claim that dogs are reported to experience less pain and have a reduced risk of permanent injury from the bites when properly vaccinated. They do clearly acknowledge that while the vaccine may reduce signs if the dog is bitten, immediate veterinary care is still essential.

The rattlesnake vaccine was developed to protect against the venom of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. The vaccine provides no protection against venom from the Coral Snake, Water Moccasin, or Mojave Rattlesnake.

According to Dr. Paula Ibsen, a staff veterinarian with Red Rock Biologics, dogs need to be inoculated at least 30 days before any potential exposure to rattlesnakes (full antibody protection is not reached until 30 days following the vaccination), and should get a booster shot every six months thereafter.

The Concerns

Most veterinarians’ concerns surrounding the vaccine focus on the fact that they present no real science behind the product. The information they provide is very generic and superficial, which isn't enough to make most veterinarians blindly endorse the vaccine. Even quoting the vaccine company's own information, “safety and efficacy are not proven.”

As a veterinarian, you know the purpose of a vaccine is to reduce the time from re-exposure to said agent, venom, or virus to production of antibodies called memory T-cells. The part that seems illogical to some veterinarians is that with a snake bite, you don't have a few days for the production of the antibodies. Anti-venom is so helpful and must to be given quickly to be effective. They have not demonstrated that the vaccine will stimulate enough antibodies—and quickly enough-- to neutralize the venom.

Additionally, the company has no "specialists" to back their vaccine. Why are there no internists, toxicologists, or immunologists who will step forward and endorse the product? It makes skeptics wonder.

Finally, the vaccine may be reactive and can cause sterile abscesses at the site of injection, and this is more likely in small breeds (as are most all vaccine reactions in my experience).

The Consensus

There are anecdotal reports of vaccinated dogs not reacting severely and recovering quickly when bitten but, without controlled studies, we can't know whether there was actually envenomation or not (around 25- 30% of all snake bites are dry, meaning they inject no venom) and maybe the dog would have been fine anyway. There are also anecdotal reports of there being no difference, whether vaccinated or not. All reports are subjective and, therefore, not reliable.

Still, in the real world, when faced with a client who knows about this vaccine, it's very difficult to deny them access by saying that there is "no scientific proof" that it works, though this is the truth. If the client’s dog gets bitten, becomes very sick, and faces death, the client is likely to have recriminations about why you didn't give the vaccine. And that is a situation any veterinarian would want to avoid.

Which brings us to why this is a very personal decision, for you, the pet parent. If you do decide to use this vaccine, it's important not to develop a false sense of security. Owners need to understand that this vaccine will not eliminate the need to take the dog for care should he be bitten. It may buy some time to get him to theth veterinarian; then again, it may not. Don't assume the vaccine will provide any amount of a cushion.

As long as owners understand the potential risks and limitations of this product, it may be helpful for dogs who frequently come into contact with rattlesnakes. However, that is a decision to be made by you and your veterinarian.