Updated April 3rd, 2020
‘Emergency Care’ (details below)
If A Dog Or Cat Is Bitten By A Snake
- Stay calm and keep your pet still and quiet
- Do not try to catch or kill the snake
- Do not wait until symptoms develop
- Immediately travel to an emergency vet, calling on the way if possible
Now dive deeper…
All Australian pet owners need to be snake-aware, even city-dwellers. I lost a beautiful dog to a snake, and I don’t want it to happen to you.
Here’s what you need to know to prevent and treat snake bite in dogs and cats.
Which Snakes Are Dangerous?
There are three groups of Aussie snakes that cause most bites:
- Brown snakes
- Black snakes, including the King Brown
- Tiger snakes
In any region in Australia, there is usually only one snake that causes most of the problems. For us in southern Australia, that will be the Eastern Brown Snake. It’s not especially aggressive but will bite if cornered or attacked. I took the video quite safely as one crossed my path, but then I didn’t have a pet with me.
We also have the Red-bellied Black (below) found mostly near water, and Tiger Snakes in coastal areas.
Prevention of Snake Bite in Pets
Snakes will leave us alone if we leave them alone. Most like the quiet life as much as we do. They aren’t likely to bite your pets unless they have no other choice.
- Take special care during snake season. In southern Australia, that’s generally from October to April, depending on warm conditions. During this time it’s best to keep your dogs on leash a lot more.
- Keep your yard clear of cover for snakes by mowing, pruning, weeding, clearing up woodpiles and removing rubbish. Good excuse for a bonfire I reckon.
- Keep rats and mice under control. Snakes come into our yards after prey, so eliminate food sources for rodents and clear out their nests. Read here about rat poison and dogs.
- Keep cats inside. Cats will actively seek out snakes (I’ve even had one brought through the cat flap!), so anywhere near open land is too dangerous to let them out. In Adelaide, that’s along the rivers, adjacent to parklands and on the urban fringe. Indoor cats can be happy too!
- Choose off-leash areas carefully. They should be busy (to scare snakes away) and well-maintained. Look out for warning signs and avoid long grass or shrubby areas. All of our favourite Adelaide dog walks are too dangerous off-lead.
- Be careful when visiting unknown areas. I lost my Ruby dog when I left her in the yard of a holiday home. I’ll never forgive myself for not asking the question: “could there be snakes here?”
- Train dogs to leave snakes alone. I’ll admit I have no experience of this but there is no shortage of dog trainers offering the service. I still wouldn’t rely on it though.
The same goes for whether certain dog breeds are more likely to ignore snakes. Although it is probably true, I think all show enough interest to be in danger.
Signs of Snake Bite
Three types of snake venom cause different signs, depending on the snake species.
- A neurotoxin causes paralysis (most snakes)
- A myotoxin causes muscle damage (many snakes but not our Brown)
- An anticoagulant causes bleeding (less important)
What does a snake bite look like? Signs are highly variable and include some of the following:
- No wound! You usually can’t see a snake bite
- An unsteady, wobbly gait leading to hind leg weakness
- Unusual behaviours such as trembling or shaking
- Fast or shallow breathing
- Paralysis and dilated pupils (the picture shows a cat receiving antivenom in our hospital)
- Sometimes blood in the urine or bleeding (we don’t see this with brown snakes)
The links list other causes. There are important differences between cats and dogs:
- Dogs often collapse or vomit straight after being bitten and then appear to recover. This is a sure sign they received a fatal dose. Symptoms often appear within an hour and progress rapidly.
- Cats develop symptoms much more slowly than dogs, and often just get floppier and floppier. I once saw a cat come inside, go to sleep and only later fall off the lounge trying to get up.
Treatment Of Snakebite
Time is critical. If you see your pet near a snake, you must assume they’ve been bitten. My Ruby died in the car on the way to the local vet because we didn’t know she’d been bitten until the symptoms started.
I advise owners to come down so we can place a drip and give the necessary premedicants. Then we can start antivenom treatment instantly if we need to, like is happening for this cat who was brought to us paralysed.
Why don’t we give antivenom unless we’re sure?
- Antivenom is made from horse serum and can cause an anaphylactic reaction
- Antivenom is expensive so we try not to waste it
- No pet should die if antivenom is given early enough
Vets usually choose which antivenom to use based on local knowledge. For example, in my region, we only see Brown snake bites. However, in some areas, vets may need to do a test first or give a combined antivenin.
Other treatments may include intravenous fluids and respiratory support. It may take one to two weeks before a pet is fully recovered from snake bite but they can usually be sent home from hospital after one to two days.
Home Remedies Such As Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a popular home remedy for snake bite that was first used in North America. Its mode of action is thought to be by combating oxidative stress.
Even if it works for cytotoxic venoms of rattlesnakes or vipers (for which there is no evidence), Vitamin C has no place in the treatment of Australian snake bite. Most Australian snakes kill by the use of neurotoxins that cause paralysis. There is no conceivable way Vitamin C could interfere with such venom.
Any report of how a home snake bite remedy saved a dog or cat needs to be treated with scepticism. These were likely to be ‘dry’ bites that delivered little to no venom or from non-venomous snakes.
First Aid For Snake Bite
There’s no home treatment for snake bite but here’s what you can do on the way to the vet:
- Keep your pet quiet and still to slow down toxin absorption
- If a leg was bitten you can wrap it tightly, however, don’t waste time unless you’re sure
- Call the vet so they can get everything ready before you arrive
Most importantly, stay calm: it should be OK.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.