Each summer a number of dogs and cats are bitten by snakes. Pets living in rural areas are more likely to encounter snakes, and it is not uncommon for snakes to come close to the built-up areas. Many owners exercise their dogs in these areas, and with the current abundant growth of grass, encounters with snakes are possible.
The problem for the veterinarians in the diagnosis of snakebite is that quite often the actual encounter with the snake is not observed. The dog may be some distance from the owner and the incident may not be associated with much of a disturbance.
Some dogs will attack a snake and the ensuing scuffle may be heard or seen by the owner. Quite often a bite may occur when the curious dog merely tries to sniff the unfamiliar animal.
Cats do most of their hunting unobserved by their owners and usually at night or in the early morning. Unless a dead snake is found with the cat, there is usually very little superficial evidence of a snakebite. The hair covering the animal makes it very difficult to find the small marks of the snake’s fangs.
The first sign of snakebite in the dog is that it appears exhausted, will flop down panting very rapidly and becomes quite distressed. It soon shows signs of intense muscle weakness, has difficulty in getting up and walking, and soon becomes completely paralyzed.
It often vomits and may develop muscle spasms which can lead the owner into believing that the dog has been poisoned with strychnine. The muscles of respiration may become affected. The dog’s breathing becomes increasingly difficult and death occurs from respiratory and circulatory failure.
The cat exhibits respiratory distress and vomits in the early stages after being bitten. It is more usual to find the cat paralyzed, oblivious to its surroundings and with its pupils dilated. Fortunately the cat seems more resistant to the effects of snakebite than the dog and it will survive for quite long periods even after being bitten by a large snake.
The only satisfactory treatment for snakebite is the intravenous administration of the appropriate antivenom. Unfortunately it is not very often that the snake is observed, let alone correctly identified. There are available polyvalent antivenoms which will neutralize the venoms of all snakes found in the area and these are used extensively in human medicine.
Owners should be aware of the first symptoms of snakebite, particularly if the dog is exercised in bushland or near creeks. Cats living in suburbs adjoining the unleashed areas are most likely to encounter and attempt to kill a snake.
Prompt treatment can save the pet’s life. The antivenom must be administered directly into a vein and is quite useless injected under the skin or into a muscle. Consult your veterinarian if you have any suspicions that your pet might have been bitten.