Just as in humans, snake bite envenomation can be a life threatening event for dogs and cats and prompt urgent medical treatment is critical for your pet's survival.
Snakes are found throughout Australia and are typically only active over the warmer months between September to March. They are often encountered on walking trails and are usually found basking in the morning or afternoon sun.
In Victoria we have three main species of snakes; Tiger snakes, Brown snakes and Red-Bellied Black snakes. Tiger snakes can vary from mostly black in colour to light brown with dark stripes, they usually like to live near a water source such as a river. Brown snakes and Red-Bellied Black snakes appear as their name suggests, and both prefer more arid and dry locations.
Sometimes the diagnosis can be easy; often owners will be aware that their pet has been near a snake or playing with a snake - either due to finding a dead snake or witnessing the event itself. Other times the history may not be so clear, a common situation we are presented with is a dog who has been out on a walk, was heard yelping while exploring around in tall grass or bushes, and then shortly afterwards seems to become very wobbly on their feet or starts to vomit. Cats are commonly bitten by snakes too, however they will usually present weak and lethargic often 24 hours after being bitten.
DO NOT attempt to kill the snake!
This puts YOUR OWN LIFE AT RISK and the information acquired is simply not worth the danger!
The symptoms related to snake envenomation can vary and may include:
TYPES OF VENOM
Different species of snakes have different chemicals in their venom, and so a Tiger snake envenomation can look very different clinically from a Brown snake envenomation. The types of toxins in snake venom can be separated into 4 broad categories:
Neurotoxins: Affect the nervous system, most importantly the respiratory system Haemotoxins: Attack red blood cells
Cardiotoxins: Attack the cells of the heart and other musculature
Cellular toxins: Cause the generalised destruction and necrosis of localised cells
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
Understanding this can help explain why your vet may suggest different tests to check to see if your pet has been bitten by a snake or not. The first thing that is undertaken is a thorough clinical exam.
The clinical exam allows the veterinarian to look for any dysfunctions in the neurological, cardiovascular or respiratory system of your pet. This might include vomiting, weakness or a collapsing episode, or even a shallow and weak breathing pattern. It might also include signs of excessive salivation, muscle tremors or large dilated pupils. Cats often present very weak and floppy.
If the diagnosis is not clear and if we would like to make sure we are not missing a snake envenomation in the early stages. Sometimes it is necessary to employ a number of tests to make a diagnosis of snake bite; this can include snake venom detection, blood and urine tests.
The treatment for a snake envenomation is the administration of intravenous snake anti-venom. The longer between the bite and treatment, the greater the chance of serious secondary complications or even death occurring.
Treatment can be quite expensive; most snake envenomation cases require at least two anti-venom vials which make up the bulk of the expenses incurred. Some cases also require intravenous fluid or oxygen therapy. For this reason, your vet may offer you some diagnostic tests to rule out a snake envenomation and avoid expensive and unnecessary treatments.
Given these expenses, we strongly recommend that you consider health insurance for your pet if you feel your pet may be at risk of snake envenomation in the future.
Generally, on a warm, sunny day between September and March, if your pet is showing any signs of vomiting, weakness, breathing problems or vagueness- especially after a walk, then PLEASE seek urgent veterinary attention. Clinical signs may not be immediately obvious, but every minute is vital when dealing with snake envenomation.