Grand Canyon's own Pink Rattlesnake | Photo by Mike Buchheit

I’m sure it’s instinctive, but the absolute fear and loathing most people feel towards snakes of any sort is incredible! The desert certainly has its share of rattlesnakes, but realistically you are more likely to see the non-venomous varieties. The most common snakes you will find at the Grand Canyon are Gopher Snakes and Common King Snakes. Both are harmless and actually very useful to have as neighbors! They eat rodents, which would become dangerously abundant if left unchecked. Rodents are by far more troublesome than snakes could ever be. Rodents carry many diseases, including deadly ones like bubonic plague and hanta virus, and they are far more widespread and numerous. For more information on mice and squirrels and the problems they present, please see the page Rock Squirrels & Other Rodents.

Grand Canyon is the home of a rattlesnake that occurs nowhere else in the world, the Grand Canyon Rattlesnake. To blend in with the rocks found in the inner gorge, the snake has adapted by taking on a pinkish color. And blend it does-very well. In fact, many people have probably passed right by the Grand Canyon Rattler without even knowing it! They are very docile and usually just lay coiled and sleeping when you pass by. Believe me, they want nothing to do with you! They will only strike if directly threatened. So as long as you are not getting ready to step on or put your hand down on one while climbing about, you don’t have anything to worry about. Snakes will not chase you. But even without rattlesnakes to worry about, you must always watch where you put your hands and feet. The desert is filled with things that require your attention; cactus, scorpions, loose rocks, as well as many other things. The desert demands your respect and close attention. As long as you watch where you’re going and are properly prepared, you won’t have a problem.

The other rattlesnake you’ll find at the Canyon, and throughout the west, is the Western Diamondback. Of all the rattlesnakes of the western United States, the Diamondback is perhaps the most aggressive. By aggressive though, I only mean that they will not chase you, but they will stand their ground. Don’t expect them to move off of the trail for you. Sometimes they will, but don’t count on it. Walk around them at a respectful distance. But I guess I didn’t need to tell you that!

If by some chance you let your guard down and do get bitten, below is the best information on the treatment of snake bites that I’ve seen anywhere. This article was first published in the Sweetwater Reporter July 4, 1999. The article is reprinted here with permission courtesy of Russell Smith, author and copyright holder.

What’s New in Rattlesnake Bite Treatment

By Russell Smith

In recent years rattlesnake bite treatment has undergone enormous changes. Just a few years ago people were still cutting into wounds with razor blades and pocketknives and sucking out venom by mouth. Those techniques are no longer considered sound medical treatment and in fact cause more harm than benefit (infection and blood vessel damage). Yet even with hundreds of years of rattlesnake victims in America there are still disputed areas of treatment (mainly in the early stages of treatment).

The Compression Controversy

For example most venom experts now recommend the use of an Ace bandage wrapped above the bite (between the bite and the heart) in the early emergency treatment stage. A very few medical doctors still oppose the use of bandages because they fear it causes more localized tissue damage in the bitten extremities. Despite the successful use of compression bandages for the past 20 years in Australia the use in America has been slow to develop because of the difference in venoms between Australian snakes and American rattlesnakes.

Many Australian snakes have a venom that attacks the muscles and nervous system and can kill quite quickly. Compression is a technique used to delay the onset of venom from the bite until the patient can receive life-saving antivenin injections. In America the venom of rattlers is a tissue destructive venom and doctors were reluctant to compress limbs because of the fear they would cause more localized tissue damage in the extremities.

Other experts feel the spread of venom to vital organs can be life-threatening and that you have no way of knowing how life-threatening a snakebite is in the first moments of the event. Therefore, users of this method must recognize that there is a trade-off: containment as a life-saving measure at the risk of local tissue damage which while not necessarily life-threatening, could be disfiguring, painful and/or which could require prolonged and extensive follow-up treatment. Any readers who decide to use this method on ANY type of snakebite do so as a life or death decision and to make this decision in pre-recognition of the above information. In addition some U.S. rattlesnake bites, particularly from large species, results in widespread damage to limbs even when bites were to digits and hands or feet. Thus the wide-area, low-pressure wraps can prevent the spread of venom and more widespread damage.

The use of compression bandages (lightly wrapped like for a strain with a pulse always present) is currently considered the best practice by the San Diego Regional Poison Control Center (emergency help for physicians available at 800 876-4766). They further recommend: DO NOT remove the constricting band until the victim has reached the hospital and is receiving antivenom.

The Elevation Controversy

The San Diego doctors recommend this for elevation of bites: If possible, allow the bitten limb to rest at a level lower than the victim’s heart.

Yet a herpetologist webpage on the Internet offers this first aid treatment suggestion about elevation:

If possible, try and keep bitten extremity at heart level or in a gravity-neutral position. Raising it above heart level can cause antivenom to travel into the body. Holding it down, below heart level can increase swelling.

This is an interesting suggestion (gravity-neutral) in that it offers the dual benefit of slowing venom from reaching the heart and at the same time slowing down the swelling in the bitten limb.

Extraction of Venom Controversy

Virtually all doctors and herpetologists agree the use of a Sawyer extractor cup is highly recommended for initial first-aid and in fact the use of two Sawyer kits is advised if there are multiple fang wounds. Herpetologists also issue this recommendation: Extractors can be left in place 30 minutes or more if necessary. It also aids in keeping the venom from spreading by applying a negative pressure against the tissue where the venom was initially deposited and creates a gradient which favors the movement of venom toward the Sawyer’s external collection cup.

Where the doctors and herpetologists disagree is that in the absence of a Sawyer kit (which most people and hospitals probably will not have) herpetologists suggest using a gauze pad over the wound. They recommend if an extractor is not available apply hard direct pressure over bite using a 4 x 4 gauze pad folded in half twice. Tape in place with adhesive tape. Soak gauze pad in BetadineT solution if available and not allergic to iodines. Strap gauze pad tightly in place with adhesive tape.

This gauze treatment and Betadine soaking sounds like it is a worthwhile first aid treatment assuming not too much time is lost in getting to the hospital. If transportation is going to be delayed the gauze treatment (in absence of the much superior Sawyer cup) could be an aid in soaking up some of the venom drainage and preventing surface infection.

Consensus Treatments

There is no controversy over the use of antivenom (also spelled antivenin). Antivenom is the only and best treatment for snakebite and you must get as much as is necessary as soon as possible. Antivenom administration should not be delayed. Up to 20 vials may be needed to neutralize the effects of rattlesnake venom. Children may need more than this as envenomation is apt to be much more serious in a small person compared to a larger one.

Also here is a List of Things to NOT DO:

  • DO NOT apply ice, cold packs, or hot packs.
  • DO NOT cut or incise the bite site.
  • DO NOT permit removal of pressure dressings, Sawyer or ACE bandage until you are at a facility ready and able to administer antivenom.
  • DO NOT apply a narrow, constrictive tourniquet such as a belt, necktie or cord.
  • Do not eat or drink anything unless okayed by medical sources.
  • Do not engage in strenuous physical activity.
  • Do not apply oral (mouth) suction to bite.
  • Do not drink any alcohol or use any medication.
  • Do not waste time or take any risks trying to kill, bag or bring in offending snake.
  • Do not waste time in getting to the hospital. Have someone drive you or call for an ambulance.

Here are some other good sources for information and dealing with snakes and snakebites: