Precautions in Snake Country
Identify snakes in your area
Learn how to identify the snakes found in your area or where you will be traveling. All snakes with a pointed tail, naturally occurring in South Dakota are nonvenomous. Any snake can and will bite, but the Prairie Rattlesnake is the only venomous snake found in SD. This snake is born with a rattle segment called a "button" at the end of its tail (never a pointed tail) and the adults will have several rattle segments. You may also notice a flat and broad or triangular shaped head. The pupil (black portion) of a rattlesnake's eye is cat-like or elliptical, whereas the nonvenomous snakes have round shaped pupils.
All rattlesnakes are venomous, even young snakes. Studies have shown the venom of a young Prairie Rattlesnake may be up to three times the strength of the adult snake. In the United States, 8,000 snakebites are actually caused by venomous snakes, resulting in an average of 10-15 human deaths annually.
Watch what you're doing
Be careful where you put your hands or feet and where you sit. Most snakes are inactive animals that depend upon concealment for protection. A rattlesnake in its natural habitat is almost impossible to see, when motionless and silent. Do not depend on a rattlesnake to rattle before it strikes. Most rattlesnakes will not rattle unless they are frightened or endangered.
Don't jump or step over logs, rocks, or plant material, walk around these obstacles. Be careful in the outdoors when turning over logs, rocks, or other large objects, a snake may be laying underneath resting or looking for food. When hiking, watch where you step, stay on paths or in clearings if possible. Avoid tall grassy areas with heavy underbrush. DO NOT put your hands or feet into places where you cannot see. Look closely at the ground before crossing over or under fences.
Keep your distance
If you come across a snake, maintain a safe distance. Stay at least a body length away from the snake. A snake can normally strike 1/2 their body length, but this could be farther if they are facing downhill. Snakes normally aren't aggressive, but be prepared to retreat if a snake comes toward you. It may only be seeking escape cover.
Do not disturb, attempt to handle, or attempt to kill any venomous snake. One-third of the people bitten by snakes were trying to catch, handle or kill the snake. If you have a choice, leave the snake alone. Any sudden or quick movements may scare the snake and it may strike. Don't bother the snake and it won't bother you! One percent of all people have a chance of being bitten by a venomous snake and less than one percent of those bitten will die. Under no circumstances should rattlesnakes be considered as pets. Even the professional snake handlers suffer bites. Any snakebite can be a serious situation and a medical nightmare!
Wear suitable clothing and footwear when outdoors. Leather boots provide adequate protection for the feet and ankles; low cut shoes or sandals should not be worn in rattlesnake country, especially at night. Rattlesnake fangs can penetrate through clothing, loose-fitting is better than close binding styles.
What should be done if you or another person is bitten by a snake
Determine if the snake is still in the vicinity and if it is a venomous snake, but don't waste precious time looking for the snake. Remember that any snake can and will bite again. Rattlesnakes are normally found west of the Missouri River (in central SD) and the counties bordering this river on its east side.
Was the snake a rattlesnake?
To identify a snake, look at the snake's tail. Does the tail end with a rattle segment(s) or a pointed tail common with our non-venomous snakes? Some rattlesnakes may have only a stub of the tail. These snakes may have lost the last portion of their tail into the skin section including the rattles. The tail may have been cut off by some farm machinery or bit off by another animal. Rattlesnakes do not regenerate their tails like lizards, but will have only a blunt stub of a tail with no rattles.
Try to remain calm, treat for shock, and seek medical attention immediately. Reduce physical activity and exertion as much as practical. Excitement and shock allow the hemotoxic venom of a rattlesnake to spread faster through the circulatory/lymphatic systems of the victim's body. Time is critical with any snakebite. The victim should seek medical help as soon as possible. A person will normally know how serious the bite will be within the first 30 minutes. The location of the bite and the amount of venom injected are the main factors affecting the seriousness of the bite. In most cases, the bite area will swell, turn black and blue and can be very painful. Any suction with the mouth or a mechanical device or any cutting over the bite area is no longer recommended. Remove any tight-fitting garments and constricting jewelry, such as rings.
Wrap above the bite
The use of a compression type or wide elastic bandages (ACE) for snakebite first aid will delay and safely impede the spread of venom in the subcutaneous tissue. Experts advise that such wraps should be placed 1-2 inches above the bite - between the bite and the heart, wrapped as tightly as used for strains or sprained ankles, etc. (in Medical Herpetology by Steve Grenard - 1994)
Get to a hospital
The best advice of what you will need for a snakebite is a set of keys and a vehicle for transportation to a medical facility. The use of ice, stun guns, or tourniquets for snakebite ARE NOT recommended. Do not take any pills containing aspirin or ibuprofen and don't drink any alcohol, because these will thin the blood and may cause further complications. Advanced notice to the hospital or clinic, would also be helpful for their preparation for the incoming patient.
Basic first-aid for any snakebite
Most health-care professionals recommend just a few basic first-aid techniques for any snakebite. According to the American Red Cross, the following steps should be taken:
- Wash the bitten area with soap and water.
- Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
- Get medical help and don't delay.