Dr Caroline Houston
Senior Mixed Animal Veterinarian
We thought an article on snake bites in dogs and cats could be timely. Although it was a relatively cool start to summer here in South Gippsland, unfortunately at Gippsland Veterinary Group we have already seen plenty of evidence that snakes are out and about, with several pets already having been treated at our clinics for envenomation. Unfortunately, encounters between cats and dogs and snakes are quite common – cats and dogs are often curious and will seek to investigate or even catch a snake, and being
bitten is a common consequence. If there is any suspicion at all that your pet may have been bitten by a snake, the best advice we can give you is to bring them in to see our vets as soon as possible. We have vets and nurses on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the event of a snake bite – carry your pet to your vehicle and call ahead to our nearest clinic. We will give you advice on where to go and what to do. The earlier we can instigate treatment, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome. DO NOT attempt to catch or kill the snake yourself – we can provide treatment without having to identify the snake species that has caused the bite. For more information on snake species click here to go to the Museum Victoria website.
Clinical Signs of Snake Envenomation
Although clinical signs for snake bites in dogs and cats are often rapid in onset and dramatic, this is not always the case. Some cats and dogs may be affected more gradually with deterioration over several days. Lethargy, inappetance, dilated pupils, salivation and weakness progressing to paralysis may all be seen. These cases can be more difficult to diagnose and treat. In our area, pets are most commonly bitten by Tiger, Copperhead or Red-bellied Black snakes. The clinical signs can be quite variable and depend on the type and quantity of venom the dog or cat receives in the bite. If a lethal dose of venom has been received, dogs will commonly salivate, vomit and may even collapse shortly after the bite. In some cases, they will then make an apparent recovery. Immediate veterinary attention should still be sought as this recovery is short lived and antivenine must be administered as soon as possible to prevent rapid progression of clinical signs. Cats tend to show weakness and wobbliness on their feet.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Snake Envenomation
Diagnosis may be easy if the bite has been witnessed by the owner. However, in other cases it may not be quite so straightforward. Snake venom can cause widespread muscle damage, as well as delayed blood clotting times. We may consider blood tests to measure one or both of these parameters. Unfortunately, there is no one test which is guaranteed to give the correct diagnosis in every case of snake envenomation – both false positive and false negative results can occur.
Treatment consists of administering antivenom, and supportive care. Antivenom is expensive and we can advise you of the costs of each injection when you call. Here at Gippsland Veterinary Group we stock combined Tiger/Brown snake antivenom, which will cover bites from all Victorian snakes. Antivenom is most useful if it can be administered in the first 24hrs after a bite, and many cases need more than one vial. Supportive care can include pain relief for muscle damage, intravenous fluids to provide hydration and to encourage diuresis of the kidneys and assisted feeding (via syringe or a feeding tube) until the patient recovers. Time spent in the clinic can vary from several days to several weeks depending on the time taken to recover.