post image

Risks to Western US Rural Dogs – Cacti, Barbed Wire & Rattlesnakes

Spikes, snags, and snakes: call it the trifecta of rural life with dogs. When my dogs and I moved to our mountain valley in 2001, I simply didn’t realize the additional dangers the dogs might face. Learn from my mistakes. Your dog will thank you for it.


An injury from cactus spikes can be tricky to treat. For example, some types of cacti break off with pressure, so dogs end up with a whole chunk of cactus stuck to them. I know it’s tempting to grab the prickly plant with your bare hands, but I learned a better way to remove the spikes from my dog trainer.

Make a loop with your dog’s leash around the cactus and use it to remove the offending plant from your dog. (It’s usually tender paws that have come in contact with the spikes.) Simply fling the hunk of cactus off the trail.

If your dog’s wound appears tender or he continues limping, you’ll have to cut your walk or hike short. Once at home, use a magnifying glass and good tweezers to find and remove any remaining cactus needles. Wear protective gardening gloves to keep from transferring the thorns from your dog to yourself.
If you tend to choose hikes in prickly areas, then carry a magnifying glass, tweezers, moist wipes, and antiseptic spray in your pack so that you can take care of things right on the trail.

Barbed Wire

After checking with rural pals, it appears dog-versus-barbed-wire troubles typically happen two ways:

A dog gets his feet tangled in a loose strand or unseen coil of barbed wire on the ground, or

A dog tries to squeeze under or through a fence and snags his skin or coat.

Either way, exposure to barbed wire dangers is a great example of the value of an emergency stop cue. This type of command, when used properly, can come in handy in preventing your dog from continuing to move once he is hooked. Saying “stay” might work for some dogs, but I prefer using a cue that means “stop right where you are.” At my house, that verbal cue is “whoa!”

If words don’t work, you may have to flop down next to your dog and physically keep him still while you or someone else attempts to remove the wire. Try to keep the wire and barbs as flat as possible as you remove it so that you don’t make the hole in the snagged skin any bigger.

In many cases, the hair itself becomes tangled rather than the skin. If you do find a hole, however, be sure to clean it really well when you get home. And, if you see any signs of infection or trouble, including swelling, pain, discharge, or hair loss, make a veterinary appointment.


I wish I could tell you that this scenario is hypothetical for me, but it isn’t. Because dogs explore their world with their noses and mouths, they can happen upon and rile otherwise docile snakes that you don’t even know are there.
All snakes sample the air with their tongues to assess what’s going on around them. Rattlesnakes, which are pit vipers, also have a heat sensory organ that lets them “see” other animals based on their body heat. It’s accurate enough that a rattlesnake can tell the difference between small animals such as rodents and larger animals such as dogs.

Rattlesnakes don’t have ears, so they cannot hear you approach. Instead, they read vibrations in the ground. Often, they feel us and our dogs coming. Thumping a walking stick on the ground as you hike can help alert snakes to your presence, which may help you avoid ugly surprises.

Rattlesnake myths include that the snakes will always rattle a warning first or that they only strike from a coiled position. That’s not the case. Many don’t rattle, and they indeed can bite from a flat position.

Recently, the rangers from a Jefferson County Open Space park near my home posted a photo of a large rattler online. Things hadn’t really warmed up here yet, but they’d already come across a large rattlesnake right in the middle of the main park trail.

The ranger’s post included the following advice: “Listen and be aware. Keep your dog on leash and give SPACE and TIME for rattlesnakes to get out of your way. The vibration from stomping your feet in place, from a safe distance, can scare away rattlers.”

Remember, rattlesnakes are fast and can strike a full one-third or more of their body length, so you don’t want to step over or barely skirt around one.
If you do encounter a rattlesnake, don’t try to pick it up with a stick or move it yourself. Most of all, don’t try to kill the snake. A rattlesnake that’s injured or dying can inflict what’s called an “agonal” bite, where he unloads every bit of venom he has. Such bites are often deadly to dogs.