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Help: My dog has been bitten by a snake!

Summer in Australia means snakes are about. But what exactly should you do if your dog suffers a snake bite, or you suspect they might have been bitten? Here’s how we saved my dog from a brown snake bite.

Most Aussies know what to do for a snake bite on humans – call 000 immediately for an ambulance, wrap the whole limb which has been bitten with a pressure immobilisation bandage (not too tight) and keep the bite victim calm and still to keep the heart rate down.

But for a snake bite on a dog, it tends to be much more difficult. For a start, they have plenty of fur, which can make it difficult – even impossible – to identify the actual site of the bite.

Also, given their very different size and shape to us humans – and that they may have tried to attack or sniff the snake – they are more likely to be bitten on the face or body than the limbs, meaning compression bandaging may not be an option.

A very personal experience

A number of years ago, my dog Shelton – a then four year-old black Labrador – was bitten by a brown snake that seemed to come out of nowhere.

It was a public holiday, part of a long weekend, and a group of us were on the family farm in rural NSW.

Shelton was running along the driveway in front of us in the ute, when something darted out from the grass and briefly got tangled between his legs, before being flicked behind him and under the ute.

It happened so unbelievably fast – just a flash – that we didn’t really know what it was. Pondering that it may have been a large stick that we didn’t want in the way, we stopped the car and looked around to try and identify what the flash had been. We soon found out: a large Eastern brown snake, that had slithered back off the driveway to hide beside a large rock.

I picked up Shelton, put him in my lap in the car, and we raced back to the house to call the emergency vet. I lay him on the cool floor and tried to keep him calm and still (as much as you can keep a young Labrador still!) while checking for any puncture wounds.

I couldn’t see or feel anything, and there was no sign of any blood. But the vet suggested we bring him in ASAP regardless.

Emotional, and expensive, dilemma

We managed to get him to the vet clinic within around 15 minutes, and the vet checked him over just as I had – again, not finding any visible puncture marks.

She advised us we had two options: keep him under the vet’s close observation for a while to see if he developed any symptoms, or administer the anti-venom as a precaution, with an overnight stay for close observation, at a cost of around $1,000 (bearing in mind this was 2010, so those treatment costs are almost certainly much higher now).

But the risk of waiting was that, should he develop symptoms, it may then be too late to save him.

It was a lot of money, and I didn’t like the idea of subjecting him to treatments he may not need. But really, there was only one choice – my best mate’s life was at stake. And so the vet began preparing the anti-venom.

It takes a bit of time to set everything up, particularly when it is just the vet without any support staff present.

Just as she began administering the drip, Shelton’s breathing became more laboured, he started frothing at the mouth and his eyes began to glaze over. He had indeed been bitten.

Thankfully, because we actually saw the attack happen and got him treated quickly, Shelton made a full and almost immediate recovery.

So too were we lucky, the vet suggested, that he may have only suffered a graze rather than a full bite – and with it a full dose of venom – from the snake.

Others not so lucky

Afterwards, with Shelton back to his normal happy self, the vet acknowledged that not everyone is so lucky in saving their dogs from a snake bite.

She recalled another after-hours call about a snake bite. Only that person didn’t have access to a car at the time, and so the vet had to go to them.

The vet drove out, picked up the dog that had been bitten, and took it back to the clinic for treatment.

But as she was preparing the antivenom, the dog’s owner called again: their other dog had also been bitten. With precious minutes running out, and no other vets available at the time, the owner was forced into a truly heartbreaking situation: having to choose which dog to save – the one already being prepped for treatment, or the one in their arms.

My first-hand advice

I’m not a vet, so I obviously can’t give medical advice. But from my own experience with Shelton, there are a few things I can recommend to boost the chances of your dog surviving a snake bite, in the unlucky event you are faced with this situation:

  • Keep your local emergency vet’s number on hand – even saved in your mobile. You’ll save valuable minutes in not having to look for the number, or worse still having to search around to find the nearest vet hospital that is open 24/7.
  • Ring the vet to let them know you’re coming. This will enable them to prepare for your arrival while you’re in transit, so they can begin treating your dog faster.
  • Don’t wait to act. Every minute can be the difference between life and death, so get your dog to the vet ASAP (and do so safely: your dog will not be helped by you getting bitten too, or getting into an accident on the way to the vet).
  • Not finding bite marks is no guarantee that your dog has escaped a snake bite. So err on the side of caution.
  • Don’t go to the vet alone, if you can avoid it. It may take a couple of people to come along with you to keep them as still and calm as possible on the way to the vet. Plus, t is a REALLY emotional experience, and both you and your dog will need support!
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