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Dealing with Snake Bites

As summer approaches, so do the snakes. Whilst Australian’s might have learnt to live with them, no one is happy to have them in the backyard where their impact is devastating, especially on the family pet. Snake bite injuries start to appear in vet clinics from October with Murdoch University Veterinary Hospital reporting almost 50 in one year alone.

The curiosity of dogs causes them to approach a snake that they see either when walking or in the backyard. Their first instinct is to chase or kill snakes which almost always results in them being bitten on the face, neck or legs. Cats try to hunt them and the outcome is usually the same.

Cats are actually more likely to survive a snake bite than dogs but, with quick treatment, the survival rates of both are surprisingly good depending on the species of the snake.

SNAKES IN W.A.
WA has many species of snakes and although not all are venomous, it is probably best to assume that they all are when dealing with snake bites on pets.

• Death Adders have brown stripes over the length of their body and a tail tip that looks like a grub to lure in their prey. They are very venomous and more active at night but very difficult to see during the day.

• Dugites or Spotted Brown Snakes are a dangerously venomous snake with wide variations in colour and pattern including light brown with large black mark to almost all brown to an almost black colour.

• Tiger snakes are often associated with waterways. Those around Perth are predominantly black with brown stripes and the ones further south appear gun-metal grey on top with a brown underbelly.

• Western Brown Snakes are the ones most likely to be found in houses and have caused the most human fatalities of all snakes in WA. They are dangerously venomous and have a large variation in colours and patterns.

SIGNS OF A SNAKE BITE
Owners aren’t always around when pets are bitten and may not notice the puncture wound until signs of distress start to appear. Signs include:
• Sudden weakness and lack of balance followed by the animal collapsing.
• Puncture wound or wounds, probably on legs or face.
• Swelling of the area that has been bitten and pain.
• Wound continues to bleed and doesn’t clot.
• Drooling, frothing around the mouth or shaking.
• Vomiting and loss of bladder control.
• Paralysis, starting with the hind legs.
• Dilated pupils.

DEALING WITH A SNAKE BITE ON PETS
As much as possible, the pet needs to be kept calm and should be taken to the vet immediately. Cats and dogs that aren’t treated have a much lower survival rate whilst those that get treatment quickly are 80% more likely to survive.

If it will take time to get the animal to the vet and the bite is on a limb, apply a pressure bandage over and around the bite. This is a firm bandage that begins over the snake bite and continues down the limb and then back to the top. However, many pets are bitten on the face and neck so applying a bandage is not an option.

Do not wash the wound or apply a tourniquet as these are all wasting precious time and may do more harm than good. If an ice pack is at hand, this can be applied.

When transporting a cat or dog, carry it to the car and if possible have one person drive whilst the other sits with it, keeping it calm. The calmer the animal, the slower the blood flow and so the venom will take longer to spread through the body. If possible, phone the vet on the way so that they can be prepared for your arrival.

If the pet stops breathing on the way to the vet, attempt mouth-to-nose resuscitation whilst it is laying on its side. Hold the animal’s mouth firmly closed and breathe into its nose, hard enough to see its stomach lift up each time you blow. When it arrives at the vets, they will then put it on a ventilator.

Don’t waste time trying to catch or kill the snake just for the purpose of identification. This will only put you at risk and delay the time it takes to get the pet to medical care. If the vet knows the type of snake, an antivenom can be administered quicker but the vet can also do a blood or urine test to find this information. Antivenom is quite expensive so without pet insurance, there could be a sizeable bill at the end.

KEEPING CATS AND DOGS SAFE
WA has some fantastic parks and paths for walking dogs but in summer, it is best to keep the dog on a lead and avoid long grass and bush. Alternatively, choose parks that are regularly mown or invest in an extendable lead which still lets the dog run but allows you to control it so that it doesn’t go into dangerous areas.

Snakes are difficult to keep out of even some suburban gardens, especially those near waterways, creeks and areas with long grass. They are always looking for food, water and shelter and some backyards will provide all three.

If snakes are a definite threat because of the location of the property, ‘snake and mouse mesh’ is available which can prove a worthwhile investment for everyone in the family. It can be installed around the whole property or used around dog runs or chicken pens. Alternatively, install solidly constructed fences that have no gaps such as Colorbond.

Around the backyard, keep the grass cut since snakes travel through long grass in search of food and hiding spots. Clean up any piles of rubbish, leaves, old plant pots or debris. Remove any sheets of tin and fence off access to wood piles as both are favourite hiding places for snakes and mice.

If snakes are a major issue, consider removing plants that are bushy near to the ground and replace them with higher growing shrubs which don’t provide hiding places for snakes.

If rats or mice are a problem, deal with them completely as they are the food source that the snakes are chasing. Better Pets and Gardens has both baits and traps that are very effective for dealing with rodent problems but if the numbers are large, it may be best to call in a pest control company. Of course, baits used to kill the rats and mice also need to be safe for pets.

There are snake deterrents on the market but most of these have not been shown to be successful. Snakes don’t have ears so anything emitting sound definitely won’t work and the old wives tales of using naphthalene or lavender oil also have little effect.

It’s always recommended to keep dog kennels off the ground but snakes like to have small spaces to hide such as the gap underneath. Either put the kennel on a very solid block of wood or thick piece of rubber over slabs to eliminate any spaces or elevate the kennel at least 15cm off the ground to make it less likely that the snake will want to hang around.

Keep water bowls elevated off the ground as well and remove any uneaten food that might encourage rats or mice into the backyard.

FINDING A SNAKE IN THE BACKYARD
Do not try to catch or kill the snake. All Australian snakes are protected and, in any case, the risk is far too great.

Bring all pets and children indoors immediately and, in WA, contact the Wildlife Helpline on 9474 9055 or your local hospital who will give you the number of a volunteer snake catcher to come out and remove the snake safely. Advice is also available from from the Department of Parks and Wildlife on 9219 9840.  Once that is done, it is probably a good time to make the backyard less inviting to snakes.

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