One of the joys of the season is being outdoors with our pets in the warmer weather surrounded by the colours and scents of spring. But while the inviting weather helps to lure us outside, it also presents some dangers. Snakes also become more active, and increased vigilance by owners is required in order to safeguard their pets, regardless of whether you live in the city and or in rural areas. It’s important that you can identify the signs of a snake bite and know what to do if you suspect your pet has been bitten.
Snakes will generally try to avoid you and your pets, but curiosity often gets the better of our pets who end up getting bitten as a result. Dogs often try to chase snakes, and sustain bites as a consequence; Bites to dogs’ faces and legs are common. Cats are also at risk due to their natural hunting instincts. They have a habit of chasing anything that moves, therefore pursuing is snake is usually a temptation too hard to resist.
Why extra care is required in spring
During winter snakes become dormant. Their metabolisms slow and they use little energy.
Early in spring, they emerge from their wintertime slumber to warm their bodies, feed and reproduce. They heat their bodies by lying on warm surfaces such as rocks, concrete, and bitumen. This means that they are less likely to be hidden away, slower, and easier for our pets to find and catch than in the heat of summer.
Even if we’re not aware of them, snakes are everywhere
Snakes are found all over South Australia, including the cites, and in Adelaide red-bellied black snakes are commonly found. Snakes are protected by law, and it’s illegal to kill one or remove it from its habitat, except if it’s venomous and poses a genuine threat to life and safety. The best way to avoid a bite is to stay away from them altogether, as snakes will usually bite only to feed or defend themselves. Most bites therefore occur when a snake feels threatened.
Many species, such as the Eastern Brown, are used to living around humans and are well adapted to it. In the cities, snakes live on mice and rats, and shelter under things often found around homes such as building materials, wood piles, and debris. People often make welcoming homes for snakes inadvertently by providing shelter and water sources.
The most common snakes, and where they hang out
There are five species in particular you should watch out for in South Australia. All are venomous and their bites can cause serious illness, and some are potentially lethal.
Eastern Brown Snakes occupy a broad range of habitats, with open landscapes such as woodlands, scrub, and grasslands appearing to be preferred. They are found also in waterways and swamps are frequently encountered on the edges of suburban areas.
Easter Brown snakes are about 1.5 metres long on average, and can be a variety of shades of brown, to almost black, with a small head.
Western brown snakes are found usually in drier habitats such as grass and woodlands. They take refuge under any type of groundcover such as corrugated roofing iron, timber, rocks, and burrows. Western brown snakes reach up to 1.5 metres, have a slender build, with a light to medium shade of brown on their body, and shiny heads and necks.
Red Belly Black
Red bellied black snakes are usually found in a wet environment such as swamps, lagoons and streams, however they also inhabit grasslands and forests. They are commonly found on farms with dams and canals. They take refuge in logs, burrows, in thick grass, and under rocks. Red bellied black snakes are between 1.5 to 2 metres in length, black – with a lighter coloured mouth – and bright red scales down the underside of the body.
Copperhead snakes live in variety of habitats including forests at high altitudes, beach sand dunes, open grassland, agricultural areas, creeks, swamps, and rivers. They hide under stones, thick vegetation, and wood. Copperhead snakes are uniformly coloured on top with colours ranging through grey, black and brown, with bellies of grey to cream. They range in size from just under a metre to 1.5 metres.
Tiger snakes, like Red Belly Black snakes, usually have wetter home environments such as swamps, dams and creeks. They can also be found on grazing land where there’s water. They shelter under thick vegetation, wood, and burrows, and are good climbers. Tiger snakes vary in length between 1 to 2.5 metres, and the yellow and black “tiger bands” for which they’re known don’t appear on all of them. Some Tiger snakes don’t have patterns at all, while others have bands of paler colour - closer to white.
Most of the bites sustained by domestic pets come from brown snakes and can be fatal to animals and humans.
Signs that a snake bit has occurred
The symptoms of snake bite depend on the snake species, and other factors such as the location of the bite and the amount of venom. As a rule, the closer the bite is to the heart the more quickly the venom spreads to other parts of the body.
The signs of snake bite usually appear half an hour to 24 hours after an animal is bitten. Dogs usually show signs quickly while cats can react much more slowly. A variety of effects can be experienced ranging from bleeding to neurological effects. In many cases, the animal collapses or vomits shortly after being bitten. It may appear that an animal that’s been bitten is starting to recover but then the signs get progressively worse.
A common early sign of snake bite is dilated pupils not responsive to light, followed by weakness in the hind legs which makes the animal stagger. Ultimately the weakness leads to paralysis and the animal won’t be able to stand, walk, or hold its head up. Rapid and shallow breathing is followed by increasing difficulty breathing which often leads to coma and death if treatment isn’t given promptly.
Other signs of snake bite include:
- Bleeding from wounds
- Shaking or twitching of the muscles
- Vomiting and loss of bowel control
What to do if your pet gets bitten
If you suspect that your pet has been bitten, get them to a vet as quickly as possible. The sooner they’re treated, the better their chances of survival. Until you are able to get to a vet, keep your pet calm and cool, and keep them as still as possible. Your pets should be carried whenever they need to be moved, such as to the car.
Remove your pet’s collar if it has been bitten on the neck, and try to keep the site of bite below the level of the heart. If it will take some time to get veterinary help, applying a pressure bandage can help to slow the venom spreading to the heart – apply a bandage firmly on and around the bite (apply hand pressure to a body bite). Do not apply a tourniquet, or wash the wound.
Most pet owners do this instinctively, but don’t forget to comfort your pets by talking reassuringly, and gently stroking them. It helps owners as well, during a particularly stressful time.
Without putting yourself in harm’s way, tell your vet what type of snake it was if you are able to identify it, or take a photo of it on your phone, but do not try to detain or kill it. Remember snakes are protected in Australia. If it is dead, you could very carefully take it with you to the vet. Please remember a dead snake are still deliver venom through their fangs.
How snake bites are treated
Veterinary treatment usually consists of the administration of antivenin and intravenous fluids. Antivenin is used to neutralise the snake venom that is already in an animal’s body and it does not provide protection from future snake bites. Antivenin, and the intensive care of your pet in hospital, can be expensive and lead to a large veterinary bill, which is another good reason to keep your pets away from snakes.
Prognosis for snake bites
Prognosis depends on how quickly treatment is started and the amount of venom injected. A venomous snake bite is a life-threatening emergency. Antivenin usually increases survival rates, and animals injected with large volumes of venom may take weeks to return to full health, because of the extensive damage done by the venom – muscle damage in particular. A recovery within 1-2 days may be possible for animals who’ve received prompt treatment, but in serious cases hospital treatment may last for a week, with several weeks of further recuperation at home.
Prevention is always better than cure
Avoiding snake bites altogether is of course the main goal, and there are some simple things you can do to decrease the risks of snake bites:
- When walking dogs, keep them on a leash and away from long grass and rocks.
- Stay on open paths.
- Do not let dogs explore under rocks, logs, timber, or in burrows.
- If you encounter a snake while with your pets, try to stay between your pet and the snake, and calmly move yourself and your pet away from it as soon as possible.
- If it sees you too, give it time to leave - slowly walk back the way you came.
- Clean up the backyard, fill holes in the ground, and remove rubble and building materials.
- Clear away undergrowth, toys, tools and things that create hiding places for snakes.
- Consider installing a snake-proof fence around your home or if you’re erecting a fence dig it 30cm into the ground.
- Remove food scraps and spilled bird seed that attract vermin, and subsequently snakes.
- Avoid excessive watering of lawns and gardens, and eliminate pooling water. (Removing outdoor water sources helps to deprive snakes of necessary moisture.)
The best approach if you see a snake, is to treat it as dangerous. Never try to trap, catch, chase or kill a snake, and never try to handle one. Dead snakes can be dangerous too because of their venomous fangs, therefore prevent your pet from playing with or examining them.
In spite of the irrational fear many people have of snakes they shouldn’t be feared, but they should be treated sensibly, with respect, and with caution. They are important members of the ecosystem and they are a protected species. Our pets don’t have the same fear of snakes that we do (some researchers believe that humans have evolved to have a natural fear of snakes) therefore we need to manage the risk for them. Vigilance and avoidance are key in keeping our pets safe, but if they are bitten, getting veterinary assistance without delay is essential. As with any health care issue, we’re here to provide advice and support, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.