Snake Bite – Are you ready for Summer?

Snake Bites - learn how to keep your dog safe, what to do if it has been bitten and more!

Author: Chiara Perri – Head Trainer of Point Cook Dog Training & Day Care
Educating dog owners and sharing knowledge is the reason I write these blogs. My aim is to help dog owners understand what their dogs are trying to say, teaching them to be patient, teaching them to listen to their dogs and showing them that with kindness, we can make a difference.

You might have already heard that Melbourne has had a record number of snake bite victims hitting the hospitals and I am not talking about humans but instead our precious fur babies; our dogs and cats.

Sadly we have also had a few losses so here is an article to raise awareness about snakes and pets, how to avoid them, how to recognise snake bite symptoms and what to do about it.

Let’s get this out of the way first.

Common Myths!

  1. If you have blue tongued lizards on your property, snakes will not come! This is FALSE! In fact snakes will eat blue tongues lizards and eat their young so if you do have lizards living in your yard, the habitat is rather similar to what a snake likes so do not be fooled into thinking that they will avoid your house.
  2. Vitamin C will cure your dog from snake bite! This is FALSE! For years, amongst the hunting crowd, hunters swore that if they gave their dog loads of Vitamin C, that it would stop snake bite symptoms or reverse it. Aside from metabolising and being excreted from the body soon after it has been consumed, Vitamin C does not reduce or cure your dog from a snake bite so please, instead of giving it pills, go to your emergency clinic!
  3. If you have no plants around your property, you will not get snakes. This is TRUE and FALSE! If your place is tidy, snakes will less likely hang around as they don’t like to be seen out in the open because of predators however it does not stop birds such as the White Faced Heron, snagging one in its long beak, sitting on your roof and dropping it in your yard. Your house is not immune to snakes appearing just because it is plant free.
  4. Vets need the snake to identify it in order to treat it. This is FALSE! Aside from being awfully unsafe, vets now have kits that can give them an idea of what snake your dog was exposed to and some anti-venoms cover multiple species so there is no need for you to bring it in!
  5. Picking a snake up by its tail will be safe! This is FALSE! Unless you are a professional snake handler, DO NOT pick a snake up by its tail as they are just as likely to swing around and bite you. If you do find a snake in your yard, get all people and dogs away and call in the professionals! Keep an eye out on where the snake has gone to hide and leave it alone.
  6. Killing a snake and chopping its head off means it is no longer venomous! This is FALSE! Aside from being highly illegal as snakes are protected throughout Australia, a snake can still be highly venomous even when dead as the venom is in its mouth, on its fangs and sometimes on its body. If the snake has been killed by your dog, carefully collect it using a rubbish bag and gloves so you do not get any venom on your hands.
  7. You can only be venomised if bitten by the snake! This is FALSE! There have been cases where people and dogs have become seriously ill after exposure to a snake without necessarily being bitten. This was because the snake released the venom onto fur or clothing and then the person touched it and then wiped their mouth or the dog licked its fur. I personally know one case of each where neither had been bitten but had been involved in a close call only to succumb to the venom for the reasons mentioned so beware to all!
  8. If you have a Jack Russell, your dog will never get bitten because it will kill the snake first! This is FALSE! Yes Jack Russells have lightening speed and instincts when it comes to pests and snakes, however eventually they will slip up so no matter what breed you have, no matter how good a hunter it is, no matter how many time it has already killed a snake, eventually they will get bitten so do your best to avoid it from the start.
  9. Using an electronic snake repeller will guarantee to keep your home snake free. This is FALSE! There are gadgets out there on the market that claim to repel or send off snakes when they approach your boundary. While some studies may have shown that they might do the job, I would never trust a gadget alone to ensure safety.

Where are the snakes located?

As many of you know, if you live anywhere in the Point Cook area or Werribee, Altona, Altona Meadows, Williams Landing, Tarneit, Truganina, Sanctuary Lakes, Hoppers Crossing, Laverton and surrounds, you will be in the snake hotspot of the state!

Yep, we have the highest concentration of Tiger snakes than anywhere else in Victoria and this is mainly because we have creeks, river, swamps and water systems around us and we have a drier climate and snakes love that. We also live in an area that has only been developed in the last 15 years so prior to houses going up, it was literally just paddocks and farms and a haven for the reptiles.

So if anyone lives near a body of fresh water, whether it be a running stream or a stagnant bog, you will find snakes because their staple diet is here and this is frogs!

The only reason snakes have increased in numbers over the last few years is because our houses have pushed them further and further into each other as they are fast running out of natural habitat and while it seems they are coming to get us, well actually, we are invading them and giving them no other option.

If you didn’t know this was a snake hotspot, well, umm, not much I can do about it……but at least you now know!

Where do the snakes hide?

Our main snakes in the Western suburbs are Tiger Snakes, Brown Snakes and Copperheads with the first two being the most deadly but they are also quite shy animals and tend to avoid conflict at all costs.

Tigers and Brown in particular have quite small fangs and they are often reluctant to bite and waste their venom unless it was edible or a serious threat to them so bites usually occur when provoked.

“Snakes love to hide in long grasses and reeds or under warm rocks or ledges. They also like to squeeze into tight spaces or curl up in a warm corner. If you have bits of timber lying around in a pile or pipes, gutters and even stacked tiles, snakes will take up residence there. If you have a very weedy garden, lots of leaf litter, long grasses and even bags of lawn clippings, snakes will love that”

I regard snakes and reptiles in general to be solar powered and thermal powered, in that they need the sun to charge their batteries and then once they are warm, they can go for hours. Eventually their battery runs out once the temperature drops. This means that if you have a rather warm evening or night, snakes are very likely going to be out longer. So for you late night walkers, be very careful as to where you go as you might come across a snake getting the last bit of heat from the footpaths or roads!

How do we keep them out of our homes?

I often get asked how to stop snakes coming on the property and there is no easy solution. One of the main areas to consider though is keeping the yards litter free, in other words, avoid stacks of timber, messy weeds, long grasses and gaps in fences. Here are some pointers to help you out.

  1. Check your entire boundary and ensure it has no gaps, no holes underneath, no easy climbing access.
  2. Trim native or ornamental grasses in your front yard so snakes do not have anywhere to hide.
  3. Keep plants closest to your house tidy, clean up underneath and trim away from fences.
  4. Pop pieces of timber either in the shed or go to the tip. Snakes love curling up in piles of junk!

Why do dogs get bitten?

Dogs get bitten for three reasons.

  1. The dog saw it, chased it, hunted it and tried to get it.
  2. The dog accidentally stood on it or stuck its nose in a bush where it happened to be.
  3. Dogs were allowed to run off leash through long grasses near ponds and waterholes on warm days.

Snakes don’t go looking for dogs to bite however in self defence, they will do what nature tells them to. Most often snake bites are sheerly accidental.

How do we know if the dog has been bitten?

Depending on where your dog was bitten, how much your dog moves after it has been bitten and how much venom was released, some dogs display symptoms within 30 minutes whereas others can take days to a week.

The most common signs noticed are: vomiting along with weakness, excessive drooling due to paralysis of the oesophagus (the dog loses its swallow reflex), muscle tremors, falling over, appearing dazed and confused, lethargy, sudden change in energy levels, seems tired or depressed, pupils of the eyes can alter.

“It is virtually impossible to find the bite site, even after shaving the dog off completely and blood tests and symptoms are usually enough to confirm if there has been exposure or not”

The more symptoms there are, the more severe the effect and it is extremely important that the dog gets to an emergency vet hospital as soon as possible.

What do we do about it and where do we go?

If you suspect your dog has been bitten or exposed to snake venom, don’t waste time and instead, just go to your local emergency clinic.

If you saw it get bitten at home, keep your dog as calm as possible, carry it to the car and preferably have someone travel with you to keep it calm while you drive to your nearest emergency hospital. Don’t bother wasting time with a compression bandage as it then requires more time to get it off and unless you actually saw it get bitten on a leg, just focus on keeping it calm and getting it into your car!

If your dog was bitten on a walk, down at the creek or wetlands, please do not walk it back home and then drive to the vet as this will spread the venom. Instead call a friend or neighbour to come and pick you up and head straight to emergency.

Your vet will very likely perform a blood test which shows if there are early signs of muscle breakdown, a side effect of snake venom. They will also hospitalise your dog and observe it, pop in onto an intravenous drip to flush out the toxins building up and have a catheter in place to administer anti-venom. They will also often run a series of blood tests to check if other organs such as the kidneys or liver have already been affected.

Many dogs require intensive care because their breathing has become impaired or the heart rate is unstable, temperature cannot regulate well and they cannot eat, drink or even toilet on their own. So as you can see, snake bite is not to be taken lightly.

While some regular vet clinics do treat snake bite, they often do not have the provisions to keep the dogs overnight or for a lengthy period so I often suggest to instead head straight to your emergency clinic as they operate 24 hours a day.

In the western suburbs and surrounding areas we have a few:

  1. U- Vet Werribee Animal Hospital- 250 Princes Highway Werribee – 9731- 2000
  2. Animal Accident and Emergency Point Cook – 6 Wallace Avenue Point Cook- 8368 7400
  3. Advanced Vet Care- Level 1, 26 Robertson Street Kensington – 9092 0400
  4. Animal Accident and Emergency Essendon – Hargrave Avenue Essendon Fields – 9379 0700
  5. U-Vet Geelong Animal Hospital – 102 Fyans Street South Geelong – 03 5222 2139

See my handy list of Emergency Vet Clinics which includes more information including maps on how to get there.

Always try to call the emergency clinic before heading in, so they are prepared, especially if you are going after hours as they keep the premises locked. They will also ask you questions about your concerns and offer advice.

Is treatment expensive?

Treatment can be very expensive, especially if you have a large breed. On average, snake bite treatment costs around $2500+ and it doesn’t take much for bills to get to the $10k mark. Some dogs don’t respond immediately to one round of anti-venom and need a few bottles to counter the effects and some require hospitalisation for a few weeks due the severity of the symptoms. Most dogs do not go home until they can eat, drink, walk and swallow well and body function is pretty much back to normal.

If you live in a snake area, I highly recommend insuring your pet for this reason so if it does happen to you, the cost of treatment will not be a factor!

Can you train the dog to not attack snakes?

This is a tough one as we can do ‘snake aversion’ lessons, teaching your dog to come away from a snake as soon as it spots one, but would I trust it wholeheartedly; not at all.

I have trained my Jack Russell Stanley to back away and drop by my side when he spots a snake and while it has worked on one occasion after literally walking into a King Brown sunning itself in the bush, there is no way I could trust that if left alone, he would do the same.

To train your dog to walk away from a snake, I suggest buying some rubber snakes from your local toy store or $2 Shop, tying some fishing line to them and starting some sensitisation and aversion exercises. This means we are going to teach the dog TO react rather than get used to it and when it does react, to move away as quickly as possible. Here are some steps for follow.

  1. Place the rubber snake on the ground and allow your dog to see it but DO NOT allow it to check it out or sniff it. Instead start working on LEAVE IT. Each time it looks at the snake, say the word LEAVE IT and reward it for doing so. **To see how to do this exercise, please follow this link to my video titled Leave It
  2. Now start teaching your dog to spot the snake, say LEAVE IT and then call it away from it and reward it.
  3. Repeat this until you notice that as soon as your dog looks at the rubber snake, it comes immediately to you for a reward without necessarily the need to tell it to leave it alone.
  4. Now get someone to help you get the snake moving! Slowly move it by pulling the fishing line across the yard. Please note that we do not want the dog thinking the person is making it move; we need it to look as natural as possible so your helper needs to be on the other side of the yard with the end of the line.
  5. As soon as your dog notices movement, yell out the word LEAVE IT and call it away and reward it.
  6. Repeat this until you can see you dog noticing the snake moving through the grass but coming immediately to you for a reward.
  7. Once you have this in place, I would introduce DROP and STAY so that not only does your dog come away from the snake, but it also lies down next to you and does not consider going back towards it! Depending on how well your dog is with DROP and STAY, some might want to introduce it in Step 2 or 3.

Please do not train your dog to avoid snakes thinking it will ensure it will never get bitten. This is a safety measure only and may help reduce the chances of your dog attacking a snake however it is no guarantee at all as sometimes instincts just override the training!

So I hope this has been a helpful article and I do hope your dogs are all safe and if ever in doubt, call your vet or head straight down to your emergency vet clinic.

Good luck everyone.