The warmer weather currently being experienced in South Africa means the end of snakes’ period of hibernation, increasing the chances of encountering a snake on your daily walk or weekend hike – or even at home.
While there are over 160 snake species in South Africa, most of them are not dangerous to animals or humans. Depending on the type of snake, a bite may be deadly, dangerous, uncomfortable or completely harmless.
“Obviously my best advice to a pet owner is to avoid being bitten by a snake!” says Dr Rouxlene Sheridan, a veterinarian at TAH Moorreesburg.
How to prevent your pet from getting bitten by a snake:
- If you are in a known snake habitat, keep your dog on a lead to prevent him from wandering off, pursuing high-risk activities like sniffing, bouncing through patches of long grass, digging in holes or excavating under logs.
- If your dog is particularly curious, pawing at something, call him (or pull him) away. Rather be safe than sorry!
- Train your dog so he knows when to obey you in unfamiliar situations that may startle or frighten him, like a possible snake encounter.
- Do not allow your dog to investigate a snake that appears to be dead, as many snakes fake death.
- Stay on marked trails and paths where it’s easier to spot snakes.
Despite efforts to avoid an encounter with a snake, you and your beloved pet might unexpectedly get confronted with it. “Most dogs don’t understand that snakes can be deadly and will attack a snake or at the very least try to sniff it or poke their nose down its hole. A snake can perceive this action as threatening and strike defensively. Cats are seldom bitten as they have an innate understanding of the danger,” adds Dr Sheridan.
“A snake encounter could be as terrifying for you as it is for your dog. Try to remain calm and non-confrontational and leave the snake alone – give the snake some room and let it move off in its own time,” advises Dr Sheridan. Other tips on how to handle a snake encounter include:
- Remove children and pets from the snake’s proximity and call your local snake remover when you encounter a snake on your property. Unless you have experience, do not try and handle the snake yourself, but keep a close eye on the snake’s location.
- Don’t try to kill the snake or allow your dog to attempt the task, as you will be putting yourself and your dog at serious risk.
- If you spot a snake in nature, while walking your dog, stop moving. If you and your dog are standing still, it won’t perceive you as a threat and will possibly glide away.Back away from the snake slowly, giving it an escape route.
If your dog has not been lucky enough to escape a bite from a venomous snake, emergency treatment is crucial for survival. “When a snake bites an animal it injects venom with the fangs into the tissue below the skin. The venom is rapidly absorbed from the site of the bite and carried by the lymphatic system into the animal’s circulation. Snake venom carries a large range of toxins that can damage tissues and impair many of the body’s vital functions; or attack the nervous system or interfere with the body’s clotting mechanisms,” explains Dr Sheridan.
Snakes are therefore divided into three groups, due to the effect that the venom has on the victim:
- Cytotoxic – e.g. Puffadders. Their bite causes intense pain, massive swelling and possible death through hypovolaemic shock.
- Neurotoxic – e.g. Cape Cobra causes death through respiratory failure (it paralyses the pray so that it cannot breathe).
- Haemotoxic – e.g. Boomslang. Their poison causes the consumption of clotting factors in the blood and leads to death through a spontaneous haemorrhage.
While the signs of envenomation (when venom is injected) may not be immediately apparent, depending on the type of snakebite and the amount of venom injected, your dog could die within 30 minutes to two hours. If you suspect your pet has been bitten by a snake you should immobilise your pet and try to keep him/her as quiet as possible. It is vital that you take your pet to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. The sooner your pet is treated, the better their chances of survival.
Several factors will determine what sort of reaction your pet has to a snake:
- The type of snake (some species of snake are more venomous than others).
- The amount of venom injected (depends on the size and maturity of the snake).
- Usually the closer the bite is to the heart the quicker the venom will be absorbed into the pet’s system and distributed around the body.
Dogs and cats are most often bitten around the head and limbs, but it is not always possible to find the bite mark. Warning signs that your dog has been bitten by a venomous snake include:
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Pale gums
When your dog has been bitten
“If your pet is ever bitten by a snake, he or she needs to get to a veterinarian urgently. “The sooner we start treatment, the better chance we have of success. Treatment usually includes a thorough examination to assess the clinical sign they are showing and determine the best course of action. Further diagnostic tests may be required to determine if your pet has actually been bitten and it is always better if the snake can be identified. Veterinary treatment varies with each individual case, how severe the symptoms are and how rapidly the symptoms progress. Treatment usually consists of intravenous fluids and the administration of antivenom to neutralise the snake venom in the pet’s body. Some patients require multiple vials of antivenom,” says Dr Sheridan.
Other supportive care may also be required – including oxygen supplementation and even breathing for the pet if they are not breathing well on their own. This needs to continue until the circulating antivenom has been neutralised and any bound venom has worn off. In South African we have polyvalent antivenom (against Puffadder, Gaboon adder, Cobras and Mambas) and monovalent antivenom (against Boomslang) in order to treat snake bites.
Due to the high costs associated with antivenom, not all veterinary practices stock antivenom. TAH Moorreesburg and the Cape Animal Medical Centre do stock, as well as the 24-hour TAH Bellville. “In the case of a Cape Cobra bite, we will stabilise the patient with medicine and antivenom and then send him to our Bellville branch, to be put on a ventilator. TAH Bellville is one of only 2 veterinary practices in the Western Cape with access to a ventilator as well as a vet on the premises 24/7, giving your pet the best possible chance of survival,” adds Dr Sheridan.
Other factors that can help in saving a dog’s life that has been bitten by a snake:
- Try to identify the snake by taking note of its size, shape of the head and colour patterns. Another idea might be to take a photo of the snake, if possible, but do not endanger your life to obtain the photo. The vet or hospital will need to know as much information about the snake as possible to treat the victim accordingly.
- Protect yourself and your dog from further harm. This includes you being bitten by your anxious, scared dog.
- Look for fang marks and wrap a clean bandage on the affected limb snugly but not too tight. This will reduce the amount of venom from entering the bloodstream.
- Try and keep the affected area lower than the heart and get to the nearest vet as soon as possible.
- Try to keep your dog calm because with the adrenalin rushing through their veins this will speed up their metabolism which in turn causes the venom to spread faster.
- Familiarise yourself with what emergency measures to take in the event of a snakebite and where your nearest vets are, is in case of an emergency
- Ignore backwoods dogma about first aid for snakebites (such as applying tourniquets and cutting wounds to suck out the poison) as these interventions have limited benefit, if any.
What not to do in the event of a snake bite
- Do not try and suck the poison out
- Do not wash the wound
- Do not use a tourniquet
- Do not waste time by looking for the snake and trying to kill it to bring along to the vet
Approximately 80% of pets survive a snake bite if treated quickly. The survival rate is much lower however for pets that are left untreated, and death can occur. Recovery from a snake bite usually takes 24 to 48 hours if the pet receives prompt veterinary attention and the snake bite is not severe. However, some pets will take substantially longer to make a full recovery due to tissue damage to internal organs and will require intensive and prolonged nursing care.
Important numbers in the event of a snake bite to your dog:
African Snake Bite Institute: 082-494-2039
TAH Bellville: 021-91 911 91
TAH Moorreesburg: 022-433 4883
For a list of snake removers: https://www.pethealthcare.co.za/PetFriendly/Articles/reptile-rescuers-list-south-africa