Friday, June 11, 2010

Snake Oil or Snake Vaccine?

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 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?

Caveat emptor!

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.

Why not?

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.



HurricaneDeck said...

Thank you for the more in depth look at the "vaccine"!

We'll be avoiding them - and the rattlers!

Funder said...

If you can find one, the rattlesnake classes are even better than DIY aversion training. Out here, they use a live (defanged?) rattler, so the dog associates both the smell AND the sound with a really nasty shock.

I agree with most of your posts. And I've gotten my dog the first round of rattlesnake "vaccine", and I'm probably going to get the second. I think it's useful in our uncommon circumstances.

My dog spends about 15 miles a week trailing me as I ride my horse in the open BLM land in Nevada. Everybody loves it, except I worry about her idiotic self bouncing over a sagebrush and landing on a diamondback. I hope that if she's bitten, the vaccine will give me more time to haul her out of the range and to a vet before any real damage is done.

I'm also going to take her to a rattlesnake clinic this year. If you're curious, we didn't move west til last September, so I'd missed all the yearly rattlesnake clinics. :(

I realize that odds are she'll never get bitten, but it's worth the modest fees for me to have a little extra peace of mind. I also realize I'm risking her life by not keeping her on a leash, but I think a life spent on a leash in a dog park isn't as much fun as the one she has right now.

PBurns said...

Gina S. writes:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

The Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the UC Davis vet school does not stock or recommend the rattler vax. Here are their vax protocols:

I had occasion to look it up recently after Faith and I came across a very large and fortunately very relaxed Diamondback on a recent hike. Faith was on leash, fortunately, not because of snakes but because of foxtails.

Subsequent to that, I mentioned the sighting to my ultramarathoning friend, who says they're so common in snake season he runs in early early morning only, when it's too cool for the snakes to be very active. And then he pointed out all the snake trails in the dirt.


The VCA Sacramento Veterinary Referral Center, where I take my dogs, doesn't recommend the vax, either. And since they pretty much offer anything the least bit efficacious, that says a lot.

As for the snakes: I'll be looking for a snake-proofing clinic for the retrievers.

Virginia said...

I got the vaccine for my JRT and was concerned about the lump it left on his injection site. I am in rattlesnake country but will not get him the continued series. After more research at UC Davis, they dont do them and I think the best bet is to try aversion therapy. I also had to argue with the vet tech that I didnt want his routine vaccines done all at once. She wanted to do the rattlesnake, rabies, DHLP and a kennel cough at the same time. I told her no, I wouldnt attack my little dogs immune system in one blow that I would come back in two weeks. However, I am canceling the kennel cough too because we live in the country and have never done that one or had a need to. I think it is another revenue enhancer for the vet.

Sherrie Hall said...

Thanks for putting this info out there. I have experience with this vaccine and it was not a good experience.

I have had MANY emails to me about sick or dead dogs after having this vaccine.
The sad thing is this company is owned by vets. I guess the "first do no harm" thing doesn't apply to them.

Sherrie Hall

Grammy said...

We do hunt tests, live in rattlesnake country and have listed to every talk done by emergency vets in this area (all seeing rattlesnake bites very frequently). NOT ONE Vet has ever tried to tell us that it works. They simply don't know because there is no way to measure the venue. However, they ALL think that it might buy time to get to the vet. We can get the vaccine here for $15 a dose at a Rattlesnake Clinic, which we sponsor once a year. Not a huge investment to "maybe" buy a little time to get our $30K dog treated! And in the retrieving world, they almost all get vaccinated. Never heard of any reaction more than a slight knot at the injection site, which goes away on it's on. And we're talking 1000's of dogs getting vaccinated in Texas. Does it work? Don't know. Does it not work? Don't know. But better safe than sorry rules in our world.

Debbie Watson
Redmark Kennels/Labradors

PBurns said...

There actually IS a way to test if it works, and this blog post sparked the research. Sadly, it's a scam as suggested here. See >>

Mike Spies said...

Mr. Burns,

Your blog post borders on the hysterical.

You live in a part of the country where, by your own admission, the chances of one of your dogs being bitten by a venomous snake are vanishingly small. I also assume that none of your dogs has actually been bitten. So you have no experience with rattlesnake strikes on dogs?

You descry RR Biologics for offering OPINION (albeit ‘informed opinion’ from vets) to support the use of their product, and then you plunge forward offering your own OPINION.

For those of us who live in rattlesnake country venomous snake bites are not something that we can treat so lightly.

Let’s suppose that we wanted a definitive scientific study to be sponsored by RR Biologics. First, they would gather perhaps 500 dogs of various sizes and breeds. Half of these dogs would be treated with the RR Biologics vaccine and the other half (the control group) would not. All the dogs would then be injected with a possibly lethal dose of Western Diamondback rattlesnake venom. The outcomes would then be observed and tabulated. This data would be included in a report as evidence in support of the efficacy of the RR Biologics product. How many dogs would die? What would your reaction to the sacrifice of so many animals be? Would public option be outrage? I think it would.

Your statistics about the effect of snake bites on dogs seems to assume that if a dog does not die, then it recovers and is fine afterwards. Not so. Rattlesnake venom causes intense pain and can destroy massive amounts of tissue even if the dog lives. Testimony from a lot of people shows that the RR Biologics vaccine has a powerful mitigating effect and substantially lessens pain and tissue damage. Any dog that is bitten should be taken to a vet and antibiotics should be administered. I expect that ANY dog bitten, whether vaccinated or not would require a vet visit and possibly antivenin at insane prices - assuming that the vet has any on hand, which very few actually do.

As for people in business actually making a profit, is this criminal? How would your vet stay in business or ANYBODY stay in business unless they make some margin to cover all the costs associated with running a business? Do the people who run businesses offering vaccines that you DO approve of deserve a profit to continue in business? Ridiculous argument.

I own, train, field trial and hunt my five setters. They are in the field at all times of the year, not just September to January. I will do anything to reduce the risk of snakebite for my dogs. This includes RR Biologics vaccine, snake breaking (with live rattlesnakes), and I carry Benadryl injections pre-measured for each dog.

I could offer a lot of anecdotal evidence illustrating the efficacy of the RR Biologics rattlesnake vaccine, but I doubt that you would be persuaded. Your mind is made up.

Good luck with your dogs, and if you are ever in SE Arizona, look me up. We’ll take the dogs for a run in country.

PBurns said...

Mike, you should read this post

The short story is that James McCabe, the Training Manager at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine, read my post and understood that the math and science behind it. Math is not opinion, though the assumptions behind the math made be wrong. As for the science, it too is not opinion: Vaccines operate on T-cell immunity and T-cells are not involved with a toxin.

Mr. McCabe did the double-blind study Red Rocks Biologics never did and it was published in the AVMA research journal. Link at link. He writes that: "The bottom line is that it in totally ineffective against the bite from the most common rattlesnake in California." Paper here >>

Since then, there has been other work, perhaps inspired by Dr. McCabe's paper. Read that here: The paper is entitled "Effects of the canine rattlesnake vaccine in moderate to severe cases of canine crotalid envenomation" and it concludes: "The findings of this study did not identify a significantly protective effect of previous vaccination in the cases of moderate to severe rattlesnake envenomation that require treatment with antivenin."

Jim B said...

There is something else you can do. I live in rattlesnake country. If my dog is bitten near a road, no problem. I have talked it over with my vet and he has the same brand of rattlesnake antivenin I have. My previous vet didn't have any antivenin so I dropped him like the proverbial hot rock.

My dog is a chukar hunting dog. If he's bitten miles up Hells Canyon, a rattlesnake heaven, it's huge problem. Time is tissue with rattlesnake bites. If you're up a hillside and a day float trip to Pittsburg Landing and still a long drive to a vet, well forget it. By the time your dog gets there it will be too late for antivenin to do any good. The answer is to carry antivenom and learn how to administer it. The manufacturer recommends an IV which anyone can learn to do. The cephalic vein is easy to find on a dog. However, in an emergency the antivenin can be administer by IM which anyone can do quickly and easily. You can ask your vet to show you this. He he refuses, get another vet.

Antivenin is the ONLY cure for rattlesnake bites. This vaccine is nothing but a ripoff. Vets are recommending because they make money off of it. Red Rock and vets know we all anthropomorphize our dogs and take advantage of this. If you really love your dog and he's around rattlesnakes a lot which dogs such as chukar and other bird hunting dogs are, get antivenom and learn to use it. It costs around $300. Well worth it for a dog that is exposed to rattlesnakes often.

Oh, my dog has been to a rattlesnake avoidance class. Does it work? Somewhat. However, just two days ago he ran past a coiled rattlesnake without noticing it. He missed it by inches. Hunting dogs never walk, they run. If they are running downwind there is a very good chance they'll not scent the snake. The advice about shocking the dog when he's close to a snake is good advice. I have an e-collar on my dog at all times when he's hunting. If a snake pops up, rather bull or rattlesnake, it a training opportunity.

PBurns said...

Good point Jim. Antivenin is $300 for 10 mg at WalmartpetRX >> but you need to keep it out of the car or truck on a hot day -- no more than 98 degree temperature.