Rebekah H. writes to ask me what I think about rattlesnake vaccines.
I do not think too much about them, as I do not live in a part of the country with very many rattlesnakes. To put a point on it, my dogs are more likely to be killed by a herd of wild zebra than they are by an Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake.
That said, let's start with the obvious.
Vaccines are typically working off of T-cell immunity, while rattlesnake venom is a toxin.
Very different things.
Yes, a body can be acclimated to a toxin, but it does not last very long, unlike a traditional vaccine.
A small group of professional snake handlers have been injecting themselves with snake venom for a very long time in order to increase their tolerance in cases of an accidental bite.
The fact that this works is widely known, but the injections have to be done several times a year, and for different species of snakes. Not a huge problem if you are Bill Haast at the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories, but not the kind of thing anyone else is doing anywhere in the world.
The canine snake bite "vaccine" that is being sold in America today is simply toxin acclimatization. A small amount of Crotalus Atrox Toxoid is injected into your dog several times over several weeks, and the snake-bite "resistance" that results lasts for six months or less.
The shots themselves are not cheap -- they cost about $75 for a pair, and their price will be tacked on to the office visit charge from the vet. Add it all up, and snake vaccines are a small pile of money.
But do they work?
Well, let's go to the sales pitch. You see, if there is ANY scientific evidence that something works, it will generally be trotted out in the sales pitch.
We find the sales pitch over at the rattlesnakevaccinefordogs.com web site, which is owned and operated by Red Rock Biologics, which is the company specially created to sell this snake bite vaccine product.
What's it say? Just this:
In 2006 there was a nationwide survey of 720 veterinary hospitals that carried the Rattlesnake Vaccine that showed that about 30% of them had already treated vaccinated dogs for rattlesnake bites. These clinics were asked to rate how well the vaccine worked and give specifics on how vaccinated dogs did as opposed to non-vaccinated dogs who were bitten by rattlesnakes.
Just over 90% of veterinarians and animal hospitals rated the vaccine as working either well or very well. About 5% said that they had mixed results; sometimes the dogs appeared to do much better than would be expected and sometimes the dogs did just as poorly as if they were not protected. About 3% of clinics said that they couldn’t tell if the vaccine made any difference at all. About 2% responded by saying that they wanted to reserve judgment until they had treated more vaccinated dogs for snake bite. So the result is that the vast majority of veterinary hospitals actually treating dogs for snakebite found obvious benefits from the vaccine.
You mean instead of actually giving us a double-blind controlled-test result for this not-FDA approved "vaccine," they are giving us an OPINION SURVEY????
And the opinion survey is of people who PROFIT from selling the vaccine??
And the opinion survey is of people who might have seen only one or two snake bite cases in their entire career, and who might have no idea of what kind of snake the dog was bit by, and who certainly have no idea of how much venom was injected into the dog?
Give me a break!
If this is the best evidence Red Rocks Biologics can trot out in a sales presentation, then they are selling crap.
How hard it is to round up 50 Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes and 50 or 100 rescue Jack Russell terriers, and run an experiment?
How come they haven't done that?
How come they have not reported out the results?
Do you need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows?
From what I can see, the only thing Red Rock Biologics guarantees with their vaccine is that you will get a veterinary bill and they will make a profit.
This is a great little business. After all, this "vaccine" is pretty damn expensive -- about $75 retail. If the vaccine is sold for $40 wholesale, and only 1 percent of the administered dogs are bitten by a venomous snake, and a payout is given to only 2 percent of those dogs (that would be a very high number for reasons I will explain in a minute), and that payout is just $400 (dogs are treated as mere property by the courts)..... well, you do the math.
Now think a moment.
That's just for Red Rock Biologics.
The veterinarian administering this stuff is going to do even better.
You see, not only is your dog going to be sold three initial visits, but it's also going to be sold two or three more visits per year, every year. Wooooooeeeee!
But wait, it gets even better.
You see if your dog is ever hit by a rattlesnake, the vaccine will not save you a visit to the veterinarian. So there is no downside for the vet here. As Red Rock Biologics is careful to note:
Snakebite is always an emergency. Even a vaccinated dog should be taken to a veterinarian for evaluation and care as soon as possible following snakebite. Veterinarians can determine if your dog's immunity at the time of the bite is sufficient for the venom dose received or if additional treatment is required. Even bites by non-venomous snakes can lead to serious infections and antibiotic treatment may be needed. A veterinarian is the best person to consult regarding medical decisions for your dog.
Here's a company marketing a medical product for which they present NO scientific evidence of efficacy! Perfect!
And you will notice there is no human analog to this canine vaccine.
Well, for one thing a human life is not worth $400.
Run the business model for dog vaccines, but plug in a human life at a mere $400,000 payout, and suddenly you have a very good reason this vaccine has no analog in the human world.
A few more points: The Red Rocks Biologics web site does not explain why their vaccine "works" as often as it does.
Here's a hint: it would work pretty well even if it was rain water.
You see, the joker in the deck is that 25% of all snake bites are "dry" bites with no venom injected at all.
Another 30 percent of all snake bites are injected with such a small amount of venom that, while there may be local pain and swelling in the bite area, there is otherwise no serious problem. Of the remaining 45% of bites, 40% are severe, but only 5% of bites, at most, are actually fatal for the dog. A review of the scientific literature found only a 1% mortality for prairie rattlesnake bites.
And this is with no vaccine at all!
So does this mean you should skip this rattlesnake vaccine? I am not going to advise, other than to point out the obvious: you are paying quite a lot of money for no assured protection from a very rare event.
Does that mean there is nothing to be done about snakes?
No, not at all.
Job One, is to ask a simple question: Does your dog really need to be running around in the desert scrub at all? Most don't. Most dogs are bitten by rattlesnake between March and September, and so we know those dogs are mostly not bird dogs, but family pets.
Job Two is to keep your dog on a leash in rattlesnake country. Even if your dog is vaccinated, you may not know if is bit if it is out running loose, and you are almost certainly not going to know what kind of snake your dog was bit by.
Job Three for desert and mountain dwellers is to teach your dog to be snake averse.
How do you do that?
Simple: be on the lookout for roadkill snakes (any and all) and keep a remote-trigger e-collar or "shock" collar in your vehicle. Let your dog approach the dead snake, but once it gets within a few feet of the snake (NOT closer than a body length), juice it HARD with the shock collar. A little training using "Edison medicine" can save your dog's life. Do this every time the dog approaches a snake (ANY snake), and your dog will quickly learn that snakes are BAD and will treat them like death itself.