Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Rattlesnakes Slither About


Last updated 4/30/2024 at 6:28pm

Sicco Rood

In the wilderness, crossing paths with a rattlesnake can be a very memorable experience. Few sounds stick in the memory quite like the buzz of a rattler. Encountering rattlesnakes on trails has its minor complications, but finding one in your home, garage, or yard is an entirely different issue.

All too often, people resort to killing rattlesnakes to get rid of them. Not only does this lead to rodent problems and biodiversity loss, but attempting to kill a rattlesnake puts you at the highest risk of getting bitten.

Studies show that the largest group of people who are bitten by rattlesnakes are those who try to engage with or handle them.

As mesopredators (predators that, in turn, have their own predators), rattlesnakes are an important part of San Diego's local food webs. Not only do rattlesnakes feed raptors, king snakes, and coyotes, but they also provide us with free, environmentally friendly pest control. That is, if we let them do their thing. Rattlesnakes mostly prey on rodents, which transmit all sorts of diseases like hantavirus and the plague. Without rattlers, we'd have a lot more than just a rodent problem on our hands.

Thankfully, rattlesnakes do not like being discovered by people. They are sensitive, fearful creatures that only hang around our properties for a good reason. Yes, they can be deadly, but they don't have to be dangerous. With a little knowledge and preparation, coexisting with these magnificent reptiles is possible.

Warmer and dry weather means more people outside. Spring is also the time when rattlesnakes become more active after what can be months of solitude and inactivity during cool winter weather. Most bites occur between April and October, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, so consider rattlesnake season well underway.

Let's dive into it – snake season is upon us.

Did you know?

Rattlesnakes use their forked tongue to taste the smell of the air.

They can sense both reflected visual light (like humans) and infrared light which is given off by an animal's body heat.

Rattlesnakes are easily identifiable by their large triangular head, narrow neck, and wide body with a pronounced ridge running down the middle of their backs. Rattlesnakes are also less shiny than most other snakes in the County. Although rattlesnakes can be seen year-round in Southern California.

Unless you are a professional trained in handling venomous snakes, you should not handle a rattlesnake on your own. Remember, attempting to scare, move, or kill a rattlesnake puts you at the highest risk of being bitten.

What should you do if you hear or see a rattlesnake?

You will likely hear the rattle before you see the snake, but just know they aren't that into you. If you hear a rattle, this is the rattlesnake's way of warning an intruder (you) of its presence. They generally are not aggressive and would rather avoid people. Pay attention to this sign, and be even more aware of your surroundings by staying on the trail, where it is easiest to identify a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes often retreat if given space to move and don't feel threatened. Most bites happen when someone handles or accidentally touches a rattlesnake, which even offers a warning with its rattle that you might be too close.

To prevent being bitten, the best advice is to leave the snake alone. Most bites occur when a person tries to pick up, tease, or kill a snake. If you give snakes an escape route, they'll avoid you rather than strike.

What should I do if there's a rattlesnake on my property?

Locate the snake and keep an eye on it from a safe distance (at least ten feet) if possible.

Keep children and pets away, lock pets in another room if the snake is in your house.

While maintaining a safe distance (ten feet), open the nearest door so the snake can escape if it wants to. If the snake is in your yard, do not attempt to scare it away, simply give it space and time to leave on its own.

If the snake does not leave on its own or you can't open a nearby door, take a picture (again, from a safe distance) and call Animal Control at 619-236-2341, or call 9-1-1 if it is a life-threatening emergency. Both entities operate 24/7 and may ask for a picture to be sure it is a venomous species.

What do rattlesnakes look like?

Rattlesnakes vary widely in their size, coloration, and behavior. There are a few distinguishing features among rattlesnakes, but frankly, closely examining a rattlesnake isn't recommended. The tell-tale sign of a rattlesnake is on the end of its tail. But rattlesnakes don't always rattle before a strike. A rattle might also break off, and young rattlesnakes might only have a small rattle or button. As snakes shed their skin, a new rattle segment is formed.

Other visual characteristics include a triangular wide-head and a skinny neck, with scales that are keeled with a rough raised texture and matte appearance instead of smooth and shiny. They are earth tone, which helps them blend in with their surroundings.

The bulges behind their jaw are where their venom is stored. Some non-venomous snakes, like the gopher snake, will flatten their heads to mimic rattlesnakes when threatened.

If you can see the shape of a rattlesnake's pupils, you're probably too close. That being said, rattlesnakes have elliptical pupils (like cats), while similar-looking, non-venomous species have round pupils (like humans). Elongated pupils help predators judge distances better, and give them better night vision. If the snake on your property doesn't have elliptical pupils, it's not a rattler. However, it could be a California lyresnake or leaf-nosed snake, which are only mildly venomous.

Are all rattlesnake bites venomous?

No. Creating venom requires energy, so a rattlesnake might deliver what's known as a non-venomous dry bite as a warning. The fangs fold back against the roof of the mouth, then descend when a rattlesnake is ready to inject venom. It's best to treat all bites as venomous and seek medical attention.

Each year, about 7,000 – 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States, and about five die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you are bitten, it is important to remember to:

Stay calm

Immobilize the bitten extremity – DO NOT apply a bandage or ice, and do not try to cut or suck out the venom

Wash the skin – soap and water works best, or an antiseptic wipe

Remove any jewelry or tight-fitting clothing, in case of swelling

Call for help – call 911 to get medical attention as soon as possible; if you have to find a phone, walk at a relaxed pace

Where are rattlesnakes found in California?

Rattlesnakes can be found from California's coast to its deserts. Around homes, they might be found in brush or under wood piles. They're not keen on being around humans, but rattlesnakes will come out into the open to bask in the sun's warmth. That might include sunny areas on or near hiking trails.

More rattlesnake safety tips

Here's more safety advice from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Stay alert when outdoors.

Wear sturdy boots and loose-fitting long pants. DO NOT wear sandals or flip-flops in brushy areas.

Stay on well-used trails. Avoid tall grass, weeds, and heavy underbrush.

Check rocks, stumps or logs before sitting down.

Shake out sleeping bag and tent before use.

Let others know where you are going, when you plan to return, and carry a cell phone. Hike with a companion when possible.

Do not grab "sticks" in water. Rattlesnakes can swim.

Do not try to touch or handle a snake, dead or alive. They might still inject venom shortly after death.

What if a rattlesnake bites my dog?

Leading with their noses while sniffing the ground, a dog might come face-to-face with a rattlesnake concealed among rocks, tall grass or brush. Contact a veterinarian as soon as possible for treatment, which might involve an antivenin.

Signs of non-venomous bite might include a pair of puncture wounds from the fangs and swelling around the bite that doesn't significantly progress. Clinical signs of a venomous bite include extensive swelling that spreads quickly, bleeding due to the venom's anticoagulant properties, and a pair of large fang marks. Those marks might be difficult to see if the wound is already swollen.

On the way to the veterinarian, make sure your dog doesn't aggravate the wound. Carry the dog, if possible, and try to keep the bite area at or below heart level to reduce blood flow to the area.

Again, prevention is the best option. Keeping a dog on leash during hikes can keep it from finding trouble. Rattlesnake aversion training classes also help a dog learn to avoid the sound of a rattlesnake.