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What to do if your dog has been bitten by a snake

One of the most serious emergencies you may ever face as a dog owner is if your dog is bitten by a venomous snake (also known as snake envenomation or systemic poisoning from the bite). This situation is one we all dread and do our best to prevent but sometimes even the best prevention is not enough. Therefore, knowing the immediate steps to take in case of a snake bite is crucial to increase the chances of saving your dog’s life.

Australia has some of the world’s deadliest snake species, including brown snakes, tiger snakes, black snakes, death adders and taipans. Snake envenomation in dogs is common but under-reported. We know from scientific research that dogs, followed by cats, are the most frequently bitten domestic animals, and a 2021 study in Qld found that most snake envenomations occurred in backyards. This study, which surveyed veterinary clinics in Queensland, reported an average of 12 cases of snake envenomation in dogs each year per clinic. Spring is a particularly high-risk period when snakes are coming out of hibernation, so walking your dog on a leash and keeping them out of long grass/bush, cutting long grass and removing rubbish from your property are important ways to reduce the risk of snake bites.

What are the signs that your dog may have been bitten by a snake?

It’s important to be aware of signs of a snake bite because often an owner is unaware a snake bite has occurred as most owners are not present when a snake bites their dog. Also, the actual bite marks from snakes can be difficult to identify because snakes have very small, razor-sharp fangs. The RSPCA advises these are some common signs of snake bites in Australia:

  • Sudden weakness followed by collapse
  • Shaking or twitching of the muscles and difficulty blinking
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Dilated pupils
  • Paralysis
  • Blood in urine

The best advice is to seek urgent veterinary care if you have even a remote suspicion that your dog has been bitten by a snake. Waiting to monitor the situation can reduce the chance of your pet’s survival, so err on the side of caution and don’t wait to act. Veterinary treatment for snake bites includes administering antivenom, which has been shown to increase the survival rate of dogs to 82.4%, compared to 33.3% in dogs not given this treatment.

What should you do next?

The most important first aid measure you can give your dog is to seek veterinary attention without delay:

  • Immediately call your local veterinarian for advice because not all practices stock antivenom so you may be redirected to another practice, such as an emergency veterinary clinic.
  • Keep calm, and do what you can to keep your dog calm, such as by limiting their movement, as over-excitement can worsen the effect of a snake’s venom.
  • If you see the snake, try to identify it for your veterinarian (such as by taking a photograph or noting the pattern and colouring as long as you can do so while staying safe) but don’t worry if you are unable to do this because your veterinarian can use a venom detection test-kit to identify the correct antivenom to use.
  • Never try to catch or kill the snake. Snakes are protected species and can be lethal so they should only be handled by professionals.
  • If your dog has an obvious bite site, applying a firm bandage to the site which can help prevent the spread of venom.
  • Veterinarians warn against applying a tourniquet as this can cut off circulation and destroy tissue.
  • It is safest for your dog to be carried to the car (preferably on a stretcher) to minimise movement.

Remember to get immediate veterinary attention

Dogs are completely dependent on us to notice when they are unwell or in danger, and the hazard of snake bites is a prime example of this. Due to the likelihood of snakes in Australia being venomous, dogs who are bitten require urgent veterinary attention. This will likely involve antivenom treatment.

As with any unexpected injury, this is a scenario where insurance, such as RSPCA Pet Insurance, can come in handy. This can give you the security of knowing a portion of eligible vet expenses are covered when you need to seek veterinary treatment and your furry friend needs it the most.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.