by Dr Charlie Blackwood

Summer brings not just sunburn and cricket but also snakes.

For interest, I have seen a snake on the rail trail each of the last 2 Sunday mornings. Snakes are obviously a danger to people and you should take sensible precautions such as long pants and strong shoes when walking in long grass, especially near a water source.  You should know about first aid and snake bites such as compression bandages etc.

Remember, it is their home! Dogs and cats are at risk from snake bite over summer and vets often see animals after a snake bite, particularly farm pets. Snakes in our area are most commonly tiger snakes (even though their appearance varies) and some brown snakes.

Signs of Snake Bite

Snake venom acts in a number of ways and signs increase with time. Animals, particularly cats, are often not noticed until the toxin has started to work. The toxins damage the nervous system causing progressive paralysis, decreases blood clotting, damages muscle and has secondary effects on kidneys.

The initial sign of a bite, if you happen to be around, often include:

  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • collapse and
  • loss of consciousness.

Often the animal appears to recover after 30 minutes or so, then other signs slowly develop. The other signs usually start to develop in a few hours but sometimes are not noticed for 24 hours. Because of their behaviour, cats are often more affected before it is noticeable.

Often the first sign of a snake bite is the pupils in the eyes become enlarged and do not close in bright light. Another sign is the animal is “drunk” or weak in the hind legs. Dogs are usually noticed wobbly in the hind legs, while cats are often fully paralysed before they are noticed. As the effects of the toxin increase, the animal will have trouble breathing, may have red-brown urine due to muscle damage and will have poor circulation.

What to Do if my Animal is Bitten

Try to stay calm and take your animal to a vet as soon as possible. Ring the vet clinic first and organise the details to avoid delays at the other end. IF, the snake is found dead, bring the snake in as well, but do NOT attempt to kill the snake – you may become a victim.

What Will the Vet Do

The vet will assess your animal and decide on the best treatment. Most dogs and many cats will die without antivenom. If possible, the vet will identify which antivenom is needed – but we have less variation in our area than other places. The anti-venom needs to be given carefully, with fluids and other medications. The animal will stay on fluids for an extended time to aid recovery and decrease secondary damage. In some cases oxygen may be given.

If unsure if the animal has been bitten, a swab for venom may be attempted, but often blood is tested for muscle and clotting damage. The animal will be monitored, given fluids, pain relief and other medication until the animal is OK to go home. Many, but unfortunately not all snake bitten dogs, will recover.

Avoiding Snake Bites in Dogs and Cats

Keep your yard clear of undergrowth, debris, holes, tools etc which make good hiding spots for snakes. Keep rodents away by limiting feed scraps as they may attract snakes. Keep your dog on the lead when in a dangerous snake area.