By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – When you venture beyond Gallatin Canyon to areas that are drier and warmer than Big Sky, it’s important to be aware of the presence of rattlesnakes.

The only venomous snake species in Montana, the prairie rattlesnake makes its home in more arid parts of the region, such as along the Madison River near Ennis, the northern reaches of Gallatin Valley, and Paradise Valley from Livingston to Yellowstone National Park.

The prairie rattler can be 48 inches or longer with a green, brown, gray or yellowish body. Dark brown splotches bordered by white run down it’s back, and the tail ends in the tell-tale rattle, which is used to warn potential predators of the snake’s presence.

Generally, rattlesnakes den in rock outcrops on south-facing slopes, and are known to be defensive rather than aggressive. When left alone, a rattlesnake won’t bother people, but if alarmed or threatened it may bite.

Rattlers rely on a pair of hollow, hinged fangs for their defense. These teeth fold back against the roof of the mouth when relaxed, but extend when the snake strikes.

The prairie rattlesnake’s venom glands contain moderate amounts of venom, which does have the ability to kill a human adult, though this is rare.

According to Shireen Banerji with the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center at Denver Health, there haven’t been any deaths due to rattlesnake bites reported to the Montana Poison Center in at least 10 years. On average, about 16 people get bit by rattlesnakes each year in Montana, with minor or moderate medical outcomes.

Most often, a person is struck on the hand, calf or ankle and at the time of the bite, there is intense pain. Symptoms may also include difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, swelling and gangrene.

For anyone traveling through rattlesnake habitat, knowing these simple first-aid steps, advised by the Montana Poison Center, can be the difference between a fast recovery and serious complications:

– Keep calm and avoid exertion. Physical activity will increase venom absorption.
– Remove jewelry and clothing that could constrict the area as it swells.
– Immobilize the bitten area with a splint or sling. This should be applied loosely to ensure circulation isn’t cut off.
– Keep the bitten limb lower than heart level.
– Slowly make way to a vehicle or place where emergency personnel can be met. Keeping the heart rate as low as possible will slow the spread of venom.
– Go to the nearest hospital or call the Poison Center at (800) 222-1222.

Don’t attempt to extract the venom; don’t use ice, heat or a tourniquet; and don’t try to capture the snake.

Dr. Sydney Desmarais of Lone Peak Veterinary Hospital said rattlesnakes can also be a threat to your dog.

“The number one thing you can do is make sure you have a dog who’s well-behaved and listens to you. If they run off, they’re more likely to get bit,” she said, adding that rocky areas or areas of dense brush are of highest concern.

If your dog is bitten, Desmarais said it’s critical to get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. It’s possible your dog’s airway could swell closed. To decrease the anaphylactic response, consider offering your dog Benadryl at a dosage authorized by your vet.

While there is a rattlesnake vaccine approved for use in dogs, it does not prevent a dog from reacting to a bite. Instead, Desmarais said it can buy the owner a little bit more time before serious symptoms set in. It’s still important to seek immediate veterinary care to increase the likelihood of survival and decrease the severity of clinical symptoms, she added.

Prevention can go a long way in rattlesnake country, and according to Desmarais, one of the best defenses against canine rattlesnake bites is to take your dog to a rattlesnake training class. This course teaches dogs to avoid rattlesnakes, and while it isn’t offered regularly in Gallatin Valley, Desmarais said it is certainly worth attending when and where courses are available.