Snake bite

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What is it?

There are many species of dangerous venomous snake in Australia, and curious pets may come into contact with snakes resulting in a potentially fatal snake bite. Snake bites require rapid emergency treatment for the best chance of survival. If you are with your pet when they get bitten by a snake this will potentially make diagnosis easier, however unsupervised pets also frequently get bitten so being aware of the symptoms of snake bite envenomation (injection of venom) will assist you in recognising the signs and seeking urgent veterinary attention.

What causes it?

Australia is home to many species of venomous and non-venomous snake species. The prevalence of venomous snakes will depend on the geographical location and proximity to suitable habitat. Snakes are usually more active during warmer weather. Snakes are frequently found in or near bushland and areas of long grass, and may be disturbed along walk trails, and near water such as lakes, swamps and dunes. If there is suitable snake habitat nearby, snakes may also venture into paddocks, stables and backyards, as the snakes may be looking for food such as small rodents.

Pets may disturb snakes that are sleeping or basking in the sun, or may sometimes chase and attempt to bite snakes resulting in the pet being bitten. Venomous snakes can inject a powerful venom when they bite, resulting in a rapid onset of symptoms which can be fatal – to both animals and people.

What animals are at risk?

Any breed of dog could be affected by snake bite envenomation, along with inquisitive outdoor cats. The pets most at risk are those individuals who are most inclined to be curious and investigate the presence of snakes in their environment, particular younger pets, however all ages can be affected. Pets living in rural and outer metropolitan areas are at higher risk due to the higher prevalence of snakes in the local environment, but urban areas of bushland and waterways also carry the risk of being snake habitat – and in all cases, snakes are usually more active during the warmer months of the year.

Exotic pets such as rabbits, rodents, guinea pigs and poultry may also be at risk if snakes can access their enclosures.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of snake bite envenomation will vary in severity depending on the species of snake, the location of the bite on the animal’s body – commonly the limbs and face, and the amount of venom injected.

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Incoordination or unable to stand
  • Collapse
  • Salivation
  • Vomiting and defecation
  • Muscle tremors
  • Progressive paralysis
  • Dilated pupils
  • Blood tinged urine
  • Small bite wounds may sometimes be visible on the skin of the limb, face or body

    Common red flag symptoms include:

  • Weakness and difficulty standing progressing to collapse Dilated pupils.

  • Can I do any first aid?

  • Calm and immobilise your pet as possible.
  • Seek emergency veterinary attention, ringing ahead if possible.
  • Identify the type of snake only if it does not put you at risk.

  • How is it diagnosed?

    Snake bite envenomation can be diagnosed through direct identification if you witness your pet interacting with a snake or being bitten by one – it is very useful to note the snake’s appearance as different species require the use of specific anti-venene as part of treatment. Taking a photograph of the snake is an easy way to aid species identification. If the snake has been killed by your pet, you can bring the snake with you when seeking veterinary attention for your pet, however as snakes are potentially fatal to people as well, it is not advisable to attempt to handle or catch snakes, and do not kill the snake as most snake species are protected – relocation by an experienced snake handler is the best course of action.

    Once your pet is seen by a veterinarian, clinical signs will be assessed and snake bite envenomation can be diagnosed via a snake venom detection kit, or through analysis of a blood or urine sample.

    How can it be treated?

    Treatment of snake bite will vary depending on the individual case and the extent of symptoms being displayed. Treatment is based on the diagnosis and confirmation of the snake species involved, the location of the bite on the pet and the amount of venom likely to have been injected. Initially your vet may collect blood and urine samples to aid diagnosis, and depending on the severity of symptoms, treatment usually involves the administration of intravenous fluids along with the required snake anti-venene. Pets will also be treated with other supportive medications and hospital procedures as needed – including oxygen administration and other breathing support. The amount of snake anti-venene that needs to be used will vary depending on the severity of the envenomation, and your vet will discuss this with you including costs, prognosis, and the expected length of treatment – which will often take several days.

    The prognosis for snake bite envenomation is often good if veterinary attention is provided promptly, however the condition can be fatal for pets that have received large doses of snake venom, or do not receive timely treatment.

    Can I prevent it?

    If you find a snake in your backyard, contact your local snake handler to remove it – your local vet, ranger, council or government wildlife service should be able to help point you towards one.

    Snakes are generally more active during the warmer months, so look to keep your pet on a leash when walking near bushland, wetlands, rivers or dunes – and keep a close eye on your pet’s activity if walking near these areas.

    Some areas may be well known as being snake habitat and may have warning signs, plus you can also seek advice from the local community about snake sightings in particular areas. If you plan to holiday in rural and coastal areas, seek local advice on the prevalence of snakes in that local area.

    If your pets live in areas of high snake prevalence, you can also enrol your pet in snake avoidance training, together with ensuring that they are well trained to respond to recall commands if you notice them near a snake. You can also reduce the amount of long grass or thick bush near your home to minimise the areas where snakes may hide.