AURORA | Initially, there was no pain, but there were fang marks. Jim Kehl had been hiking in White Ranch Open Space Park in Golden seven years ago when the rattlesnake bit his calf.
“At first it didn’t feel like anything, just a tap,” said Kehl, an Evergreen resident who used to work in Aurora. “About 60 seconds later it started to ache. Like a really bad bee sting, except under the skin.”
Five minutes later, on the hike back down to his car, Kehl’s hands and face started tingling, his eyelids began twitching, his leg started swelling and his vision became blurry. An hour later, he was in a Wheat Ridge hospital receiving antivenom medication into his bloodstream, a limb-saving remedy that Kehl said cost about $48,000.
Local doctors say rattlesnake bites like Kehl’s are on the rise this year compared with previous years, for both humans and pets.
The culprit is the prairie rattlesnake, the most-common type of venomous snake in Colorado. It grows to about three feet in length and eats mostly ground squirrels, mice, rats, small rabbits and prairie dogs.
Great Plains Dog Park in Aurora has been closed indefinitely since early May because two dogs, owned by the same person, were bitten by a rattlesnake.
“Spring seems to be kind of the hotbed of activity,” said Matt Demey, a doctor at Seven Hills Veterinary Center in Aurora who has treated five dogs with snake bites this spring, up from the usual two or three cases he sees in a typical year. The sudden increase might be because younger snakes are more frequently seen slithering around during the springtime, and they’re more aggressive and more likely to strike than older snakes, Demey said. He expects to treat dogs with rattlesnake bites through fall, he said.
Dogs are commonly bitten around the face and neck, which could result in fatalities.
“Dogs will see snakes or smell them and go investigate with their noses, then get bit on the nose or face, which is the most dangerous place to be bit,” he said.
Within the first 30 minutes, the venom can cause swelling in the face and neck and can even block off airways. In most cases, antivenom can be a life-saving antidote. Dog owners should be prepared to drop at least $700 for the medicine, Demey said, who treated the two dogs bitten at Great Plains Dog Park.
The park is now closed until rattlesnakes are no longer considered to be a threat, said Jenna Baker, special projects coordinator for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space department.
“We’re just doing an evaluation to determine when it can be reopened,” she said. “People, their pets and their safety are our main concern.”
The incident was the only recorded event this year in which a rattlesnake bit a dog in a city-owned property, she said.
Prairie rattlesnakes come out of hibernation in the spring, so it’s crucial that pet owners take precautions when hiking on local trails during the spring and summer, she said.
“It’s important for people to stay on trails, leash and supervise their pets, and if they see a snake, the best thing to do is give it distance,” Baker said.
If hikers encounter rattlesnakes, Baker says they should remain calm and walk away from the snake.
“They will not attack unless they are disturbed or threatened,” she said. “Walk around it, walk away from it and do not disturb it because it wants to get away from you as much as you want to get away from it.”
Rattlesnakes bite about 1,300 people a year in the United States, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
The bites in humans are seldom fatal, though, said Kennon Herd, physician at the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora.
“Deaths in the U.S. from snake bites are very rare,” he said. “They do happen — every year, one or two are reported. In general, those are cases where someone does not seek treatment or, very rarely, they have a severe reaction where a person will react very badly to antivenom.”
Usually the bites are not serious enough to require more than a tetanus shot or pain medication because there is only a small amount of venom injected, he said.
Herd says he has seen an increase in rattlesnake bites in humans this year.
“We see somewhere between 10 and 25 bites (in humans) a year in the metro area, and we’re towards the higher end of that this year,” Herd said.
In more serious cases where a patient’s limbs begin to swell and the injury worsens rapidly, antivenom is the only alternative to prevent tissue breakdown, he said.
Normally, the medication costs between $5,000 and $10,000, “but that would be on the low end,” Herd said. He has seen hospital bills in excess of $30,000 after rattlesnake bite treatment, but the medication is covered under most health insurances, he said.
“It’s one of those things that falls in the category of very expensive to produce and also it’s not commonly used,” he said.
Antivenom is created by injecting a small amount of venom into an animal like a sheep, goat or horse. The animal’s blood undergoes an immune response, producing antibodies, which are siphoned out and used to treat bites, Herd said.
Not everyone sees rattlesnakes as harmful perpetrators, ready to strike at any moment. Especially not snake handler Tim Gunther, a resident of Fort Collins who performs tricks with rattlesnakes in Kansas.
“The snake has had a bad rap,” said Gunther, who says he routinely performs a “kiss of death” trick in which a rattlesnake brushes its tongue across Gunther’s nose. “People think that if they see a snake, it’s going to attack them. That’s just not true. They don’t want to confront you because they know they’re going to lose.”