Snake Envenomation and Pet ICU

Living in South East Queensland means there is one thing we are never short of – snakes! Although we see them all year round, they tend to appear more-so during breeding season – Spring and Summer. Snakes are attracted to the warmer weather and it is common to see them sunbaking in the open after the cool of winter has finally passed. However, this is not ideal for our curious pets, who may want to play with the poisonous reptile or even accidentally startle one while they are exploring their environment.

The most common snake bites seen around south-east Queensland are from eastern brown snakes (Pseudonaja Textilis), red-bellied black snakes (Pseudechis Porphyriacus) and the whip snake (Demansia Psammophis) which all cause a variety of problems for our patients.

If a pet is spotted playing with a snake, they should be quickly admitted into emergency to confirm through samples whether envenomation has occurred. Unfortunately, if the bite has not been witnessed, it is often the symptoms that encourage owners to visit their nearest vet, at by which point it could be too late.

If a veterinarian suspects a bite has occurred, a venom detection kit is performed, which shows which type of snake the bite was caused by. This is important because different snakes have different effects on the body and so this knowledge is crucial for the appropriate treatment of the patient.

Nursing Care in the Pet ICU for Snake Envenomation

Due to the serious nature of snake venom, many sadly end up in the Pet ICU. Having the patient remain calm while limiting movement is important through the toxin recovery process. The type of patient and type of snake bite shapes each patient’s plan of care.

Eastern Brown Snakes

These patients are at high risk of respiratory failure as well as bleeding problems. Once antivenom is given, the waiting game begins. Often these patients can struggle to breathe on their own and may end up requiring oxygen, or mechanical ventilation while the body fights the toxin. They may receive clotting factors, which are present in plasma, one of the products we have on board from our K9 Hero blood donor program. If they have become anaemic from blood loss, they may also receive a blood transfusion. Due to the varying levels of paralysis, the treatment plans are often changed on a day to day basis or even more frequently. Often these patients require pain relief, regular physiotherapy, eye lubrication, and various medications to help them fight the toxic venom.

Red Bellied Black Snakes

Common complications for patients who have been bitten by a Red Bellied Black Snake are muscle pain, prolonged blood clotting times, localised swelling and oedema, haemolysis (destruction of red blood cells) and pigmenturia (abnormal coloured urine due to myoglobin being released from damaged tissues). The treatment also involves an infusion of snake antivenom, and depending on the seriousness of the symptoms, these patients may also receive plasma and/or blood transfusions for clotting, pain relief and physiotherapy.

Whip Snake

While whip snakes tend to be less venomous for our patients, they can cause complications. These complications tend to be compounded in cats, however, dogs may also be affected. Whip snake bites can cause localised swelling of the limbs, to paralysis (especially in our feline friends). The bite itself can cause severe bruising and swelling and this in itself can become life-threatening depending on the location (for example, the neck which can swell airways causing partial obstruction). The most important treatment is pain relief and supportive therapy until recovery.

Snake envenomation in our pets is never something to be taken lightly, and time is always of the essence. The quicker a diagnosis can be made, and subsequent antivenom be administered, the faster it will bind to the toxin, allowing the body to heal. In the Pet ICU patients are kept comfortable, and quiet so they can recover. Of course, as they start improving this may become frustrating for them. In our paralysed patients, they often want to move around but are too weak to do so. This is where our 24-hour care is important. As previously mentioned, each patient is different and their recovery times also differ, and it is with this in mind that the patients receive individualised care, whether that be with more frequent turning and physiotherapy, oxygen therapy, pain relief, antibiotics and so on.

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