It was a warm, wet winter this year across much of the United States. In most states, this means more greenery, more rabbits, more rodents and more snakes — which raises the risk of snake bites for humans and their canine companions.
Biologist Gerad Fox is standing next to a loud rattlesnake. "Right now he's in a classic strike posture, very defensive," says Fox. "The rattle is a warning, saying, 'Back off. I'm dangerous. You should leave me alone.' "
Fox teaches biology classes at Loma Linda University in California and also runs rattlesnake avoidance training classes for dogs.
I took my dog, Baxter, to one of these classes, where he learned how to recognize the sight and scent of snakes as a danger to avoid.
"Snakes are part of our ecosystem and deserve to be there," says Fox. They don't want to hurt us, he explains, but if you or your dog stumble on one by mistake, they will bite.
"Rattlesnakes can bite multiple times. They have a large reservoir of venom," says Fox.
Every year, an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people get bitten in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only about five of those people die. The CDC says the number of deaths would be much higher if people didn't seek medical care as soon as possible.
There are four types of venomous snakes that roam the United States. Coral snakes are found in wooded, sandy or marshy areas in the South. Water moccasins live in the southeastern states. Copperheads, which vary in color from reddish to golden tan, are found in eastern states. And rattlesnakes live in mountains, prairies, deserts and beaches – basically everywhere across the country, including Fryman Canyon Park, where Baxter and I like to hike. It's the closest thing to wilderness I have in my Los Angeles neighborhood.
Now that Baxter has received some training on how to avoid rattlesnakes, I wanted to know what humans can do to reduce our own risk of getting bitten. So I invited emergency room physician Mark Morocco to join me on an early morning hike.
"The canyons and passes in Southern California are places where the animals can be relatively undisturbed," says Morocco, who works at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
"The snakes aren't going to hunt you. They're not coming after you," he says.
But if you accidentally step on a snake, then it will reflexively bite. "That's the majority of snake bites for people who are hiking," Morocco says.
So what is the best way to avoid getting bitten?
Stay on the trail
The No. 1 rule when hiking in snake territory is to stay on the trail. "You want to be able to see your feet, see where you're stepping," Morocco says. "Don't get into the high brush on the side of the trail, because that's where the snakes are going to be and they're going to be harder to see."
And if you're rock climbing, watch where you put your hands. You don't want to grab a snake by mistake and surprise it.
Keep the dog on a leash
Like humans, dogs are more likely to get bitten when they go off the trail, so it's best to keep your pup on a leash. And in addition to signing your dog up for a snake avoidance class, there are snake vaccines available for dogs, so check with your vet.
Don't wear flip-flops
The next important consideration is what you have on your feet. "Most people would argue that you should be wearing boots with high sides if you're in a place with lots of snakes," Morocco says. "I would just prefer that you at least wear shoes." He has seen patients in his emergency department who have been bitten while barefoot. "We say: 'You were barefoot where?' "
Wear long pants
This is a hard one in warm climates, but wearing long pants can help since most people get bitten in the lower leg.
Keep an eye on the kids
Like dogs, kids are curious. They interact eagerly with their environment, looking closely at things and often reaching out to touch.
"I've seen a number of patients in my career — little kids who've been bitten in the face or the dominant hand," Morocco says. "Because that's what kids do. They see this thing, they reach out to touch it and bang! — they get a snake bite."
Snake bites can be more dangerous for children than for adults, because they are smaller and are often bitten on the face, which is more serious than a bite on the leg or hand. "Children get sick very quickly," Morocco says.
So what do you do if you or a loved one gets bitten?
You need to get medical treatment as soon as possible.
Call 911 immediately
The antivenin (also called antivenom) snaps itself like a magnet to the molecules of snake venom and then allows the body to excrete it when urinating. So patients receive lots of fluids along with the antivenin.
And if your dog gets bitten, the best thing to do is carry the pup to the vet as quickly as possible. There is antivenin treatment for dogs too.
Getting bitten by a snake is like getting a shot, Morocco says. The snake injects you with venom, and the harder your heart beats, the faster the venom circulates in the body. So try to stay calm or even motionless if possible to keep the venom as localized to the snake bite area as possible.
If you are bitten on the hand or arm, don't raise it above your head. Hold it across your chest, close to your heart, says Morocco. And if you have something to make into a sling to keep the arm still, do it.
If the bite is on your leg, it's best to lie down so your leg is level with, or lower than, your heart.
If it's not possible for an ambulance to reach you, you do need to get to medical treatment as quickly as possible. "If you have to walk or hop out, do it," Morocco says.
And here's some bottom-line advice for what to do if you are waiting for the ambulance or emergency medical technician: "Don't do anything you see in the movies or on TV," Morocco says. "No tourniquets, no cutting an X on the wound and trying to suck out the venom." He says those methods don't have any effect on the outcome of snake bites and can even make them worse.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So this winter was pretty warm and pretty wet across much of the United States. And for most states, this means not only more greenery, but also more rodents and more snakes. So how can you try and avoid snakes if you're not a fan, and what do you do if you are bitten? Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The snakes we worry about the most are pit vipers, copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLESNAKE RATTLING)
GERAD FOX: So right now he's in a classic strike posture, very defensive.
NEIGHMOND: He's curled up.
FOX: Yeah. He's in a coil with a S-curve on his neck so - ready to strike.
NEIGHMOND: I'm with biologist Gerad Fox in a woodsy, snake-friendly area in Southern California. Fox works with K9 Loft, a company which runs rattlesnake avoidance classes. He trains dogs how to avoid snakes, whose rattle, for them and for us, is a warning.
FOX: They don't want to hurt us. We are way too big. They cannot eat us. So it's purely defensive.
NEIGHMOND: My dog, Baxter, took this training class, but I wanted to know how humans can avoid snakes. So I asked ER doctor Mark Morocco to join me on a hike.
MARK MOROCCO: Come on, Baxter.
NEIGHMOND: Baxter, come.
MOROCCO: Try to keep your dog on a leash, and then you're less likely to have Baxter get bit by a snake.
Come on, Baxter.
NEIGHMOND: Morocco works at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He says, the No. 1 rule when hiking in snake territory, stay on the trail.
MOROCCO: You want to be able to see your feet. Don't get off into the high brush on the sides of the trail because that's where the snakes are going to be. And they're going to be harder to see.
NEIGHMOND: And if you're rock climbing, watch where you put your hands. The next important thing to think about, what you wear on your feet.
MOROCCO: It is Los Angeles, and so you will see people on trails like this in flip-flops.
NEIGHMOND: Not a good idea.
MOROCCO: Most people would argue that you should be wearing boots with high sides if you're in a place where there are lots of snakes. I would just prefer that you least wear shoes. (Laughter). And we do see some barefoot people who come into the emergency department. You're saying you were barefoot where?
NEIGHMOND: Wearing long pants can also help since most adults get bitten in the lower leg. Every year, there are thousands of snake bites in the U.S., many involving children.
MOROCCO: I've seen a number of patients in my career, little kids, who have been bit on the face or the dominant hand because that's what kids do. They see this thing, and they reach out to touch it and, bang, they get a snake bite.
NEIGHMOND: A bite on the face is more serious than a bite on the leg or hand, and children can get very sick very quickly. If someone gets bitten, Morocco says, call 911 immediately.
MOROCCO: It looks like a burn and an infection all in one. So you have swelling and blistering, and you can have some bleeding and some redness. That's when we know there's a lot of venom in the bite.
NEIGHMOND: Antivenin drugs are highly effective, which is why you should get to a hospital as soon as possible. In the meantime...
MOROCCO: Don't do anything that you see on the movies and TV - tourniquets, and cutting an X over the thing and sucking the venom out dramatically. None of that has any effect on the outcome of snake bites.
NEIGHMOND: Instead, stay calm - motionless, if possible - to slow down the distribution of snake venom in your body.
MOROCCO: When you get injected with snake venom, it's just like getting a shot. So the harder your heart beats, the higher your circulation, the more mixing blood and venom and moving it around. So we want to keep it as localized to where the snake bite is as possible.
NEIGHMOND: Ideally, lay flat on the ground until the ambulance arrives. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.