As the weather warms up and we find ourselves becoming more active outdoors with our family and pets – however so are our plethora of venomous Australian snakes. While snake envenomation is uncommon in humans, it is increasingly common in pets due to their natural sense of curiosity and hunting instincts.
Dogs and cats whom are natural hunters are often intrigued and driven to chase, and at times attempt to kill venomous snakes and regularly come off second best after the encounter. Without actually witnessing the event or finding yourself face to face with the immediate aftermath it is often difficult for the untrained eye to recognise such an encounter has occurred.
Even to the trained eye, reactions can vary determined by a range of factors. Factors can include the species of snake (most common seen in SE Queensland include the Eastern Brown Snake and Red Bellied Black Snake) volume of venom injected into the pet and the location of the bite. These factors can greatly impact the presentation, symptoms and severity of the encounter. Left untreated these encounters will likely be fatal.
- General lethargy
- Muscle tremors, shaking and reduced palpebral function (reduce eye blink)
- Dilated pupils
- Ataxia (weakness) – generally sudden onset followed by collapse
- Loss of bladder and bowel control
- Irregular bleeding
- Haematuria (bloody urine)
A typical snake bite can appear almost painless initially and difficult to spot. The tiny fangs often leave only faint puncture or scratch marks, without extensive local redness, bruising or swelling making it even more difficult to identify a snake bite occurrence. It is important to not be complacent – pet can appear completely normal for up to 24hours after a bite and even the apparently trivial looking bites can result in lethal envenomation. Pets left untreated have a very low survival rate and many die. Blood clotting times and a snake venom detection kit using urine can be used by your vet to identify if your pet has been bitten and the species of snake. This is essential prior to treating. Once the species has been identified, only then they are able to administer the antivenom and commence essential life saving treatment.
WHAT DO THE SNAKE TOXINS DO TO MY PET?
Okay we’re going to talk a bit of science here but we will try explain it as best we can. The toxins and how they affect the pets body varies depending on the species of snake and can be very complicated. The most common and most lethal seen in pets in Australia is the Brown Snake. The brown snake venom is multicomponent and includes powerful presynaptic neurotoxins, procoagulants and possibly both cardiotoxins and direct nephrotoxins. This means that the envenomation can compromise your pets blood coagulation meaning the pets blood won’t clot and is at greater risk of bleeding to death, often first recognised as irregular bleeding. Renal function is compromised and the toxins can cause kidney damage or kidney failure, muscle weakness and respiratory failure. Black snakes who’s bites can also be fatal generally show varying symptoms due to different toxins. Toxins from black snakes can cause painful muscle breakdown and damage to blood cells.
WHAT IS ANTIVENOM?
Snake antivenin is an expensive animal product and is currently the only effective treatment for snake bite envenomation. Antivenom is a blood product containing venom neutralizing antibodies derived from horses who have become hyperimmunised to a specific snake toxin. Snake antivenom is expensive to produce and only has a limited shelf life which is reflective on the cost to clients treating their pets.
If you suspect your pet has been bitten by a snake, attempt to remain calm, keep them immobilised and quiet and go straight to your nearest vet. Ring ahead so they are aware you are coming and can be ready for you. Time is the key factor in successfully treating snake bite wounds and results in better chance of survival. DO NOT wash or apply a tourniquet.
Attempt to identify the snake ONLY if it is safe to do so, but do not risk yourself or others in the process. NEVER attempt to handle or get close to a live snake. Australian snakes are protected so please do not attempt to kill them as this can pose a risk to yourself as well as being illegal. If you are sure the snake is dead prior, the body can help identify the snake for treatment purposes. Note that snake appearances can vary even within the same species and can be difficult to accurately identify.
IF YOU FIND A SNAKE IN YOUR YARD
Call 1300 ANIMAL for advice or contact your local snake catcher to relocate the snake. Remember – they are more scared of you, than you are of them. Do not panic. Do not approach it and make sure you keep pets and children away. REMEMBER: It is illegal to catch or kill a snake.