A silver lining of harsh Midwest winters is the yearly reprieve from stinging and biting insects. While mosquitoes and ticks are a favorite to gripe about during the summer months, there’s another critter residents of bluff country in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin may encounter: timber rattlesnakes.
Rebecca Pope and her dog Princess encountered one of the poisonous snakes in late July near Maiden Rock Bluff and her home in Stockholm, Wis. She said she was cutting weeds when she heard her dog yelp.
“She had two trickles of blood, one in the corner of her eye and one right below her eye,” Pope said. At first she thought Princess got a stick in her eye; but, by the time she made it to a veterinarian, she said the side of her dog’s face was swollen.
Pope later took the 8-year-old dog to an animal hospital in Oakdale, Min., where it was determined the wound was from a rattlesnake bite. With the help of a blood transfusion, the tough-as-nails Princess pulled through and is recovering.
“It’s a miracle,” Pope said.
Bites from timber rattlesnake are rare, and the typically docile snake poses little threat to humans, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. But sightings can increase during the active period of May through early October when the snakes can be found basking in the sun.
We asked Michael Worland, a specialist with the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, about what folks should do if they come across a rattlesnake in the wild.
Q: How common are rattlesnakes in the region?
A: In Minnesota timber rattlesnakes are found only among the bluffs of the southeast corner of the state, including Houston, Fillmore, Winona, Olmsted, Wabasha and Goodhue counties. Most people in this area go years or even their entire lives without seeing a rattlesnake, though some people that live near bluffs with rattlesnake populations will see them more frequently. They are also found in southwest Wisconsin, though I’m less familiar with the details of their abundance and distribution there.
Timber rattlesnakes are listed as a threatened species in Minnesota and are protected in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are an important part of the bluff prairie and forest ecosystem and help control rodents. There is also recent evidence that they help reduce the tick population.
Q: Are they dangerous to humans? How about pets?
A: Rattlesnakes certainly can be dangerous to humans and pets. But it’s important to stress just how rare rattlesnake bites are in Minnesota; to my knowledge there have been four bites in the last 34 years. In two of these instances there was evidence that the snake was harassed. So unprovoked bites are extremely rare.
Timber rattlesnakes tend to be docile. Their bites are dangerous and demand medical attention, but there hasn’t been a fatality due to a rattlesnake bite in Minnesota since the early 1900s. We’ve had reports of bites to pets (usually dogs, but also horses), but I know of no statistics for pets.
Q: How can people discourage rattlesnakes (and other snakes) from using their yard?
A: Get rid of piles: wood, brush, compost, building materials. Eliminate places that snakes could use for cover, such as under boarded walkways. Plug gaps under the house, including the steps and foundation. Reduce snake food by controlling rodents.
Consider getting rid of bird feeders, especially during the summer when snakes are active and birds are not as dependent on the feeder. Feeding can resume in September since the snakes will be at or moving to overwintering areas.
Don’t feed pets outside, nor store pet food outside. Close garbage cans. Keep lawns mowed and shrubs and large plants trimmed.
Q: What should people do if they come across a rattlesnake?
A: The easiest thing to do is just leave it alone and give it space. If there is a safety concern, the snake can be encouraged to leave. One can use a garden hose with nozzle (not a pressure washer because of the force of the water) to spray around the snake and encourage it to move. Or one can use a push broom (not a regular sweep broom) to push it away. These methods should convince a snake to leave and discourage it from returning. Finally, if one feels the snake needs to be removed, they can call their county non-emergency police dispatch.
In southeastern Minnesota, the police dispatch can contact responders who have been trained to remove rattlesnakes. If possible, the caller can assist by putting a 50-gallon trash can over the snake to keep it in place, or by keeping an eye on the snake until the responder arrives.
A photo of the snake is helpful and sometimes may be required, as this will allow accurate identification. About one-half of reported observations turn out to be another snake species, such as the western fox snake, which is non-venomous and harmless.
Q: If a rattlesnake bites you, what then?
A: Stay calm and minimize movement as much as possible. This will keep the venom from spreading quickly. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. A bite victim has some time, but the sooner the treatment is given, the less tissue damage will occur. Even just a scratch from a fang may need medical attention. We recommend going straight to a hospital with CroFab antivenom, if possible. Hospitals near southeastern Minnesota that have it include Mayo Clinic Health System Red Wing, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Gunderson/Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis., Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and Winneshiek County Memorial Hospital in Decorah, Iowa.
For pets, they should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Use of antivenom is an option, but may not be necessary. Bites may be sufficiently treated with a series of steroids, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs. The animal should be carefully monitored to assess treatment effectiveness. Pet owners and veterinarians can call the pet poison hotline at 800-213-6680 for advice from veterinarians that have experience with venomous snake bites.