Be Snake Savvy
Advice for Working Gundog Handlers

snakesignSpringtime signals the onset of warmer weather and the end of another a busy trialling season for most Retrieving enthusiasts. With more clement conditions and time available it can be tempting to spend more time outside exercising our dogs and exploring new places for a bit of training. Unfortunately, this is also when we start to see snakes about placing dogs and handlers at higher risk of snakebite injuries.
In Australia, there are about 3,000 snakebites inflicted to humans each year. However, only one or two tend to prove fatal on average thanks to modern antivenoms. About half of deaths are due to bites from the Brown snake; the rest mostly from Tiger snake, Taipan and Death Adder. Numbers of snakebites to dogs are not as well recorded, but are frequent with one survey estimating 6,200+ annual snakebites to domestic animals (mostly cats and dogs) seen by Australian Vets annually. Bites were more prominent in rural areas 78% than urban 22%, with dogs representing 47% of rural cases and 34% of urban cases. (Mirtschin PJ et al AVJ (1998); 76:195-198)

Snakes have a toxin that causes paralysis and also have an agent in them that attacks the clotting factors that help to stop bleeding. Tiger snakes also have a toxin that breaks down muscle causing damage to the kidneys. During summer, snakes' venom glands are fuller so bites are much more severe. The degree of damage inflicted by a venomous snake is determined by many variables including the snake’s age and species, intensity and depth of the fang penetration, amount of venom injected, location of the bite and the pet or person’s size. Non-poisonous snake bites tend to leave teeth marks in the shape of a horseshoe, while poisonous snakes create fang marks on victims.

Reducing the risks
Fortunately, most snakes prefer to hide when faced with a threat. If they can't escape, then they'll bite. That's when dogs typically get bitten. They put their noses where they don't belong and instead of letting a snake slither away they bother the reptile until it strikes.
Snakes tend to be most active towards the end of day when they are hunting for food, with snake bites often happening in late afternoon or early evening. So avoid walking, training or working your dog/s at these times if you are in a snake prone area.

Prevention is the most effective strategy to protect dogs from snakes. If you must exercise or work your dog/s keep them tethered whenever possible rather than allowing them to roam around. Only allow your dog some supervised freedom if it is fully trained for Stop and Recall commands. Stay on established paths or trails instead of hiking through areas where snakes can hide. Don’t have your dog retrieve through long grass either. If you have to cross long grassed areas in order to get to happy hunting or training grounds,
survey terrain in and around your direction of travel closely and keep your dog on a lead. Also, be sure to wear solid shoe and leg protection to protect yourself. If you do spot a snake in its natural habitat, endeavour to give it sufficient room to pass.

Near water, snakes are particularly fond of frogs as a food source and will often hang around ponds, dams and creeks waiting for a meal to show up. Naturally, these are also irresistible destinations for gundogs as well so extra care is needed when visiting water holes
on hot summer days. Before letting Fido loose, examine banks for clear entry and exit points to the water and use them. Avoid reeds and dense cover by the water's edge.

If your dog is bitten
Before heading off to a new location, consider checking the whereabouts of closeby veterinary services and carry a mobile phone just in case.

Once a dog has been bitten by a venomous snake a few factors affect its chances of survival. First, someone must see the dog getting bitten. Second, if your dog was bitten on his chest, his risks are far higher than if he was bitten on his paw or snout. Proximity to the heart increases probability of bleeding and tissue damage. If you think your dog has been bitten try to keep your pet (and yourself) calm and take it to a vet immediately. Keep the dog as still as possible after the bite occurred and during transport.

The chances of recovery are greater if your dog is treated early with some making good recovery within 48 hours. Dogs left untreated have a much lower survival rate. If a vet is far away, apply a pressure bandage (a firm bandage over and around the bite site) to help slow the venom spreading to the heart. But, make sure you don't cut-off circulation to a limb that has suffered a snake bite. DO NOT wash the wound or apply a tourniquet, and NEVER try to cut into the bite wound or suck out the venom. Also, do not apply ice or heat to the wound.

If you can identify the snake
(see Table 1) tell your vet but don’t try to catch or kill the snake. Most bites to humans occur as a result of interfering with the snake. Instead, consider taking a photo of it with your camera or phone if possible to show the vet (but avoid getting within striking distance). If it is dead, bring the snake with you, otherwise there is a blood or urine test that can identify whether your animal has been bitten and the type of snake responsible. Once the snake has been identified your vet can administer antivenom. Be warned though, antivenom is expensive and can result in a hefty veterinary bill, so try and keep your dog/s safe in the first place.

Before the advent of polyvalent antivenoms it was extremely important to positively identify the snake. While less important now it still remains highly desirable because snake-specific antivenoms are less hazardous to the patient than polyvalent antivenoms. Snake identification can be difficult if it was only seen fleetingly or in poor light. Scale patterns and colours can be quite unreliable, especially for Brown snakes. Venom identification kits used by vets as an alternative are able to accurately identify the type of snake in 30 minutes and reduce the need for administration of polyvalent antivenom. If identification is uncertain, vets may treat with a polyvalent to be on the safe side.

According to the Mirstschin survey, 75% of dogs survived following the administration of antivenom whereas only 31% of dogs survived without antivenom. In 33% of cases antivenom was not used, and venom detection kits were used in only 1% of cases. The clinical implication being that antivenom significantly improves the chances of survival.

Snakebite Symptoms


Table 1. Common Australian Snakes and Locations
brownsnake.GIFCommon or Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis
The Brown Snake is found all over Australia. Colours vary from dark brown to light orange. This is an agressive snake and has extremely potent venom and causes more snakebite deaths in Australia than any other. Sudden and relatively early deaths have been recorded. Its venom causes severe blood  problems which can lead to excesive bleeding and damage to the nevous system, brain and kidneys. The 'Gwardir' is also known as the Western Brown snake, and the 'Dugite' is a spotted brown snake found in Western Australia. All need Brown snake antivenom.
taipan.GIFTaipan Oxyuranus scuttelatus
The Taipan is found mostly along the non-desert areas of north and north-east Australia (from Brisbane to Darwin). It is an aggressive, large, slender snake and may be coloured any shade of brown but always has a rectangular head (large in proportion to the body) and red eye. Venom output is high and can cause blood and bleeding problems as well as muscle and kidney damage. Paralysis is difficult to reverse unless treated early. Untreated, a strong bite will almost certainly be fatal.
tigersnake.GIFTiger Snake Notechis scutatus
The Tiger snake lives in the temperate southern areas of Australia. The characteristic stripes are not seen all year round and there is a totally black variant found around the Flinders Ranges area of South Australia. As well as blood poisoning, muscle and nervous system damage is very likely if treatment is delayed. Untreated mortality is about 45%.
deathadder.GIFDeath Adder Acanthopis antarcticus
The Death Adder has a characteristic appearance and may be striped. It has strongly neurotoxic venom. Blood defects are usually minor and muscle / skeletal damage is almost never seen. Any paralysis is easily reversed by antivenom.
copperhead.GIFCopperhead Austrelaps superbus
The Copperhead is found in Tasmania, Victoria, and the western plains of NSW. Its venom can cause blood poisoning, nervous system, brain and muscle tissue issues, however, despite its large venom output, bites are rarely fatal. Tiger snake antivenom may be used for treatment.
roughscaledsnake.GIFRough Scaled Snake Tropidechis carinatus
The Rough Scaled snake is found mostly in northeastern non-arid areas. It may be striped and hence confused with the tiger snake. It is extremely ill-tempered and has venom which can cause blood poisoning, paralyisis and nervous system problems.
kingbrown.GIFKing Brown or Mulga snake Pseudechis australis
The King Brown (or Mulga) snake is found in all arid parts of Australia and has the greatest venom output which can cause blood, paralyisis and nervous system problems, but of relatively low toxicity. It has a strongly defined dark crosshatched pattern on its scales and is more related to the black snakes than the brown. King Brown bites require black snake antivenom.
RedbelliedBlack.jpgRedbellied Black Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus
The Redbellied Black snake is found in all eastern non-arid areas. While the venom can cause blood poisoning, paralyisis and nervous system issues it is not as potent as most and no deaths after a Redbellied Black snake have yet been reported. However, be careful as this snake can jump in the air if disturbed or chased. Black or Tiger antivenom may be used. 

What to do if you find a snake

The first impulse of
many of our readers will undoubtedly be to take matters into their own hands! However, it is important to note that all Australian snakes are protected species and more importantly, that the majority of human snake bites actually occur when people handle snakes in an attempt to kill or relocate them. So, if you do come across a snake it's probably best not to try and catch or kill it and expose yourself to unnecessary danger.

If on the other hand, you have a close encouter in an area you consider more your environment that theirs (like your home or yard) and continuing presence poses saftey concerns, then c
alling professional assistance from a reptile removalist (Snake Catcher) is the safest solution. Most Snake Catchers are independent volunteers who provide a safety-related service for the public and a welfare-related service for native fauna. You can find Snake Catchers in your area by simply searching online. Alternatively, most hospitals and veterinary clinics keep details of local catchers.

Retrieving Australia Oct. 2015.
Sources and further reading:
1. Australian Snake Bites, Sydney University paper, Dr. Struan K. Sutherland et al. 
2. Snake bite: a current approach to management. Australian Prescriber 2006;29:125-9.
3. Preventing Snake Bites! Pets Haven Animal Shelter 2012

This page is provided by Working Gundog Club Inc. (Affiliated with Dogs NSW)