Plausibility of rattlesnake attacking a child

My questions stem frommy eye-rolling disbelief in the assertion in this article:

Apparently the Arizona Republic is a newspaper, although with this kind of reporting standard it might as well be the Weekly World News. A rattlesnake slithered up to a child and struck? The chihuahua leaped into the path of a strike aimed at the child and blocked the attack?

Now I don’t have any issue with the possibility that a rattlesnake is dangerous to a one-year-old. Nor do I have difficulty imaginging a dog, even a chihuahua, fighting a rattlesnake to protect his or her human family…although I’d picture the dog confronting the snake him or herself than diving into the path of a strike like a miniature Secret Service hero.

But honestly, “the snake slithered up to the toddler, rattled and struck” ? Rattlesnakes hunt human children now? We’re not talking a 30-foot reticulated python feeding on villagers. We’re talking about a snake that feeds on mice and seeks to avoid confrontation with large animals, even to the degree of maintaining and operating a warning signal (the rattle) that the snake himself cannot even hear (they’re effectively deaf).

So my questions for people knowledgeable about snakes:

  1. How plausible is it that the snake simply slithered up to, and struck, the one-year-old, without being somehow provoked or cornered by the child or the dog (which is what I suspect was the case)?

  2. Is it more plausible that the snake would have been hunting the chihuahua? Those can be pretty small dogs (this one was 5 pounds).

As a side note, I wonder how they know the snake rattled before it struck. Did the one-year-old report this detail? Or was there an unmentioned adult present who heard the rattlesnake give warning?


and No.

I’ve lived in the desert for a while - now back in New England - and have a decent knowledge of rattlers.

I read the article too, and in my opinion, the little guy was splashing around, and the dog was present. The dog probably saw the rattler before the boy or any adult, and confronted it. At which time the dog was struck. I have no doubt the rattler was close to the kid, but the kid probably had no notion the snake was there…the dog probably noticed it first and the dog did the aggitating not the kid.

In that the dog took the hits for the kid I can see that, but in that the dog did it for the kid…unsure.

I heard this story on the radio this morning as part of a weird news bit. I didn’t catch the part that it was an AZ Republic story. Upon looking it up it appears they got it from wire services or something and it was originally a Colorado newspaper story. It is a ridiculous piece of hearsay, and being an employee of the Republic I must say I had nothing to do with it!

My two cents is that no animal has the speed to leap in front of a rattler that has already begun the motion of striking. They’re too fast. Either the snake went after the dog, or the dog just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also the snake almost surely had to be there already and the child probably slithered up to it. They tend to mind their own business unless they feel threatened.

[engage nitpick]

What about another rattler?
Surely a rattlesnake that chooses to stop another snake from biting a child has the speed to intercept its aggressive brethren in mid-strike?

[/engage nitpick]

I agree with the others. There was an incident in which a dog got bitten by a snake while a child played nearby, the details were misinterpreted and/or embellished until it becomes a pleasant fiction about Zoey the wonder-dog.

I propose some testing be done! Actually, I shall get a rattlesnake as a pet for my 2 year old, and train it to protect him should another rattler try to harm him. I expect great results!

More than 40 years of experience with rattlesnakes, both in the field and in captivity, compel me to say:

  1. No, and
  2. No.

Rattlers are ambush predators. They lie in wait for appropriate prey to approach, depending upon their camoflauge and immobility to remain undiscovered. When the prey is sufficiently close (less than one half their body length) they strike and inject venom, then wait a polite interval before following a scent trail to the presumably now-dead animal.

“Appropriate prey” means something that can be swallowed whole without recourse to a carving knife. (Snake teeth cannot cut or slice, and all prey must be swallowed whole.) Striking inappropriate prey is a waste of venom and effort, and is markedly dangerous for the snake.

Nothing here seems to fit the reported scenario. The rattler wouldn’t identify either child or pooch as a meal-- both are too large. And it would not approach (“slithered up to…”) prey either.

It is possible that the snake was hiding at the birdbath. This may not have been chosen as a hunting place by the snake, but a coincidental waypoint in the snake’s travels from one location to another. If it felt threatened, it could indeed strike defensively. Judging from the fact that the dog was struck, the dog must have been the target, not the child. As was stated upthread, there is simply no way for a dog to insert itself between a striking rattler and the intended target. The movement is far too quick.

Interestingly, two envenomations (“bites” in the OP) by even a small rattler of any (unidentified) species should be more than sufficient to kill a 5 pound dog, and rather swiftly at that. I’ve seen grown rabbits weighing 3 or 4 pounds die within 5 minutes after a single bite from a 4 to 5 foot Eastern Diamondbacked Rattler. A single envenomation can kill an adult human. But at least 40% of such defensive strikes on humans are “dry bites” in which no venom is injected. Presumably the snake is simply saying “Leave me alone!” and saving its valuable venom for the important work of securing prey. I suspect this was the case here.

Most rattler venoms are primarily hemotoxic-- tissue destroying. Even assuming rapid treatment with the proper anti-venin, major bodily disfunctions are assured. And a number of rattlesnake species also produce neurotoxins (nerve blockers) in their venom cocktail. The Zoey I saw on this morning’s news broadcast certainly doesn’t look like the survivor of a rattlesnake envenomation.

The child and the dog were certainly lucky. Either or both could have been killed. But the snake isn’t quite the malevolent creature, and the dog somewhat less the hero, than the article suggests.

We should consider the possibility that the Chihuahua was about to attack the child, who was saved by the timely intervention of the rattlesnake striking to protect it.

Everyone always assumes the worst when it comes to venomous snakes.

I could understand it, if the snake was already in the grass by the fountain. Either the snake rattled at the baby (GO AWAY!) and the dog put himself between the baby and the snake, snake then gets agitated enough to strike.


Dog and baby approach fountain. Dog just happens to be on the side that the snake is on. Snake gets agitated, and rattles, dog investigates. Snakes strikes in self defense.

As written no.

Depending on local weather conditions, the rattler may have been at the birdbath because it was the most convenient source of water in the immediate area. Snakes get thirsty too.

Good point. I’ve always thought that Rikki-Tikki-Tavi should offer the perspective of Nagaina, who after all just wants a place to raise her brood. And anybody who’s ever met a mongoose in the wild knows was vicious, obnoxious beasts they are. That Chihuahua should be stuffed and mounted.


Just because one can move quickly, doesn’t mean another can react quickly. :slight_smile:

In my experience, rattlers do not attack and devour toddlers younger than 2. (Going after a 1-year-old is regarded as unsporting.)

Surely the snake was just looking for a cuddle?

I’ve never met a rattler that didn’t telegraph his moves. :wink:

When working as a volunteer park ranger, some picnikers called me over as they had “an angry rattle snake”. I know that rattlers normally will “get out of daodge” and run away, if given a chance. But this was a young one, around 2’ long and it was both angry and agressive, actuually chasing folks around. It came after me. Now, I had a long staff and was able to fend it off and then (with the same staff) managed to get it into a dry wash some 50’ away, but still, the snake was suprisingly aggressive.

So although I doubt the story happened as told, I say it is possible.

Back on July 12th I was checking into a hotel near the Charleston, SC airport when a woman came into the front desk after dropping her dog off at the vet. She was walking the dog and stepped on a copperhead. The snake bit the dog, probably being confused about the source of the attack. She didn’t make any reference to the dog acting to save her from the snake, she figured it was just bad luck for the dog. Good luck for her though, so I guess it all balanced out.

With all respect, I’d characterize DrDeth’s rattler as defensive (admittedly hysterically so) rather than agressive. Rattlers have rather poor eyesight, and this is compounded by their perspective of only inches above the ground. A snake that is encountered by a group of people is frightened first by one person then, in attempting escape, by another, and perhaps another, and another. At that point the poor bewildered creature is lashing out at any blurry moving shape nearby. Someone attempting to manipulate the snake with a staff is merely one more frightening but frustrating molestor that just won’t go away. I’ve seen this kind of “at wits end” behavior in both venomous and nonvenomous snakes.

As for earlier references to rattling, this seems to be highly individualistic. Some rattlers sound off at the smallest disturbance. Others may never rattle even while being discovered, manipulated, captured, and transported; then suffered through collection of biometric data, been transported again and, ultimately, released. Rattling is not a certainty by any means.

Some people though expect rattling even to the point of “hearing” what never occurs. We had a rattler on exhibit once whose tail tip, including rattle, had been traumatically amputated by an automobile. Still, visitors would often look at the snake and remark to one another “Hear that rattle!?!! Scary, huh?!?”. Best I could tell, the only humming or buzzing sound anywhere nearby was coming from the copying machine in the adjacent room.

Bottom line for the OP-- no way to be sure even if people on scene had reported rattling.

Well, hang on… there’s also a possibility that the toddler was going to attack the snake and the dog got its paw stuck in the treadmill while trying to intervene.

That’s certainly possible but in any case that poor snake was apparently moving towards people in what appeared to be an aggressive manner. Anyway, it wasn’t acting like any other rattler I have encountered.

But in any case, moving it away from humans was a good idea both for their health and it’s health.

Funny, I read the Arizona Republic regularly, and don’t remember that story.

I guess it was on the website, but It’s an AP story, and it happened in Masonville Colorado.

So, Sailboat, would you please reconsider your opinion of the Arizona Republic’s journalistic integrity?