What to do if your dog is bitten by a snake

June 22nd, 2015
Biting snake

Kylie Baracz discovers what you should and shouldn’t do if your dog has been bitten by a snake.

Whether you’re taking a walk at dawn or dusk or just hanging out in the backyard, it’s possible that a snake is never too far away. While more common in rural areas, snakes can also take refuge in urban environments, too, perhaps hiding in long grass, under some rocks or in that snug pile of timber in the garden.

Although an encounter with a snake is not common, there is still a chance your pet might come across one, especially if they’ve decided to take a peek at what that intriguing slithering stranger is up to.

Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles so they need to lie in the sun to warm themselves. This means they are more likely to be out and about basking in the sun’s warmth. It’s particularly important to keep your eyes peeled for signs that a snake is close by if you live in warmer climes or during the summer months.

So how can you know if your dog has been bitten by a snake? According to Dr Joanne Sillince from Pets Australia, sometimes you can’t.

“Unless your dog tells you they’ve been bitten by coming back with a paw up going ‘ow, ow, ow’, you won’t know,” she says. “Often, they will [behave like this] and sometimes they will even come back with snakes in their mouths, which is a bit of a giveaway, because they’re very proud of their hunting and they’ve brought it home to show Mum but, for the most part, there is no indication that the animal has been bitten until you see clinical signs.”

Signs your dog has been bitten

Dr Sillince says it may be hard to identify the symptoms of a snake bite because it will all depend on the type of snake that has bitten your dog.

“The animal will probably start shaking and madly vomiting or start bleeding, depending on what it has been bitten by,” says Dr Sillince. “You will know it’s an emergency and you’ll suspect it’s a snake bite. It’s a much quicker process than ticks.”

Symptoms of a venomous snake bite are very much like the symptoms of a paralysis tick. According to the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), symptoms include:

• Sudden weakness followed by collapse

• Bleeding puncture wound

• Swelling in the bitten area

• Pain and discomfort

• Neurological signs such as twitching, drooling and shaking

• Vomiting

• Loss of bladder and bowel control

• Dilated pupils

• Paralysis

If you see the above signs, or suspect your dog may have been bitten by a snake, make sure to keep your pooch calm and take it to the vet immediately.

Treating the bite

“The first aid rules on snake bites have changed. They have changed for humans as well, but they’ve changed differently for dogs. The rule for dogs is just get in the car and drive,” says Dr Sillince.

She says there are a couple of reasons for this:

1. You do not know where the dog has been bitten and you can waste 15 minutes trying to find the bite, which is time that could have been spent getting the dog to the vet.

2. If the dog dies on the way to the vet, it was going to die anyway. In other words, it was already too late.

3. Dogs have fur, which makes pressure bandaging very difficult because the fur acts as a buffer and stops the bandage from properly tightening.

4. There are some slight differences in the way the lymphatics work in dogs versus humans. In humans, when you pressure bandage, you are essentially stopping the lymphatic system, but there is less evidence of that working in dogs.

“So, the only rule for snake bites in dogs is: if you are within 20 minutes to half an hour of a veterinary surgery, keep the animal calm, keep yourself calm and get in the car and drive. Ring the vet and let them know you’re coming. Make sure to have your vet on speed dial – this is very handy in emergencies,” says Dr Sillince.

“Do not do the ‘typical’ owner thing of ‘oh, the vet costs a lot of money, we’ll just wait until tomorrow and see how it goes.’ You’ll likely lose the dog or multiply the bill by 10. If the animal is wheezing, it’s alertness response or its brightness response is down, move like ‘Greased Lightning’. The vet bill will be less if you move quickly.”

The majority of snake bite cases end with the animal surviving, which is why it is so important to get your dog to the vet immediately.

“The recovery rate from snake bites is pretty good,” explains Dr Sillince. “There is some pretty sophisticated veterinary technology nowadays and the antivenins are sound. They’re very available. There is a little bit of a risk with antivenins but really not a lot. They are very high quality. So it’s a case of being alert but not alarmed.”

How to avoid them

Most of the time, snakes will likely want to avoid you, especially if you have your dog with you. Snakes don’t like being around dogs, as they are seen as predators, so they won’t voluntarily go into areas where there are dogs. For example, if you’ve got a yard on the edge of the bush and your dogs are in the yard, snakes will rarely go deliberately into the area.

“Snakes think dogs are predators. Most snake attacks happen when the dog is being nosy in a place where it shouldn’t or when a dog stands on a snake or gets close enough to frighten the snake into attacking a leg,” explains Dr Sillince. “The only real exception is a tiger snake that will go after prey, but tiger snake venom is nothing too drastic and is treatable. The real scary ones are the brown snakes and, further north, the taipans and adders.”

To reduce the likelihood of coming across a snake, Dr Sillince suggests making sure your yard is clean and free of rock or wood piles as well as keeping an eye out if walking through a bushy area, especially in the warmer months.

“Rule one for reducing or avoiding snake bites is to keep your yard clean. In other words, don’t have piles of rocks for snakes to set up house in and if you do have a wood pile, fence it off from the dog. You can even get snakes in suburban backyards if you’ve got piles of rocks or wood,” she says.

“Secondly, if you are walking your dog at dawn or dusk, keep your eyes open. Most snakes are really visible. I have done plenty of bushwalking and have seen a snake in the middle of the path because it’s clear. It’s a good spot for a snake to lie, so you just need to keep your eyes open.

“Thirdly, trust your dog. Dogs do recognise snakes as animals and dogs do recognise their tracks. But if you are walking along the path and your dog is in front of you, your dog will generally look in the direction of the snake if it has seen it.

“Lastly, if you have to go into a heavily wooded area and you don’t have any other choice, make noise. Stamp your feet because snakes can feel vibrations and they do hear noise, plus they don’t like humans. Most snakes will very happily move away.”

What to do if your dog is attacking a snake

Dr Sillince recommends that if you see your dog attacking a snake, don’t get involved because you will likely get bitten yourself.

“The first thing I’d do is get a photo if I can because if the dog is fighting a snake, it has probably been bitten and it’s the only chance I’ll get to identify the snake,” she advises. “Now, if you don’t know your snakes by eye, you can scream at your dog, throw something at them, anything to get the dog to back away … but, I tell you what, if your dog is having a fight with a snake, it is probably pretty serious. Throwing a rock will probably not get the dog to back off. Just make sure to not get involved because you don’t want to get bitten by the dog or the snake. You are of no use if you are injured. When the fight settles down, and it’s normally pretty quick (around five or 10 seconds of total chaos followed by deathly silence), I would consider taking the dog in the car and getting it checked out by the vet.”

Identifying snakes

Most of the time, the vet will ask whether you were able to spot the type of snake your dog was bitten by. However, if you didn’t see the snake, or don’t know what type it was, don’t panic.

“The vets will always ask because they must but in the vast majority of cases, the owner does not know. And in the vast majority of cases, the antivenin that’s used, if it’s used, is multivalent antivenin, unless there’s a good reason [not to],” says Dr Sillince.

“The further north you go, the more likely it is that you’ll see taipans and adders. In coastal zones, you’re more likely to get whip snakes or brown or black snakes, and in the agricultural belt, you’re more likely to see brown snakes, so vets can take an educated guess to know what type of snake it is by the reports they are getting.

“But, most often, they will use a multivalent antivenin or in an increasing number of cases now, they will simply treat the symptoms. If it’s a poisonous snake, it will produce symptoms — that is the definition of poison. If it is a non-poisonous snake, let’s say a very, very low-venomous snake, such as a little whip snake, you’ll get local swelling, pain and distress, but you won’t get any of those horrible symptomatic neurotoxicities that you will from the more poisonous snakes.”

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