The weather is beginning to warm up and we all know what this means, the snakes are waking up! So what do we need to know and what do we need to do to prevent our dogs from getting bitten?
In this blog we have some myth busting, some suggestions on how to prevent snakes from coming onto your property, understanding snake habits, some signs of snake bite and what to do if your dog has been bitten. Keep this blog handy as snakes will be up and around now until May next year and we need to be prepared!
- 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, you can still get snakes!
- Vitamin C will cure your dog from snake bite! This is FALSE! For years, recreational 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 vitamin pills, go to your emergency clinic!
- 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 just because it is plant free.
- Vets need the snake to identify it in order to treat it. This is FALSE! Aside from being unsafe, vets now have kits that can give them an idea of what snake your dog was exposed to and some antivenoms cover multiple species so there is no need for you to bring it in!
- 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 inside and call in the professionals! Keep an eye out on where the snake has gone to hide and leave it alone until the snake handler collects it with their tools and expertise.
- 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, it may have sprayed the venom so carefully collect it using a rubbish bag and gloves so you do not get any venom on your hands.
- 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. If the dog licked its fur after being sprayed with snake venom, this too can affect it. 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 above so beware to all!
- 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 and no matter what breed you have, no matter how good a hunter it is, no matter how many times it has already killed a snake, eventually it will get bitten so do your best to avoid it from the start.
- Using an electronic snake repeller (high frequency sound emitter) 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.
- Putting your dog into a snake avoidance program will guarantee your dog will not approach a snake. This is FALSE! No program can guarantee your dog will not approach a snake and many of these programs are done with the use of electric shock collars with the aim to scare the dog so much when it is presented with a snake, that it would never go near one again. However, let’s all remember that instincts can and will still override training, there is no guarantee that your dog would never approach a snake in the future. Whilst it may work immediately and for the following few weeks to months, that effect will eventually wear off which means the dog would need to be shocked over and over again to maintain that response. We also have the ethical concern of using a device that emits an electric shock to your dog’s neck! Let’s also remember that snakes don’t just come with a particular look, they also come with a very strong odour. So imagine if your dog is trained to avoid snakes by using a shock collar and now your dog happens to just walk through a park or your yard and it smells a snake in the area or that has been in the area. Imagine now how frightened it will be because it is anticipating that electric shock to the neck purely because a scent of a snake lingers. This is not fair on the dog and this method of training comes with far too many side effects that affect its mental health. If you are considering a snake avoidance program, please ensure they do not use electric shock collars! And let’s be honest with ourselves. Yes we might be able to teach a dog to come away from an obviously visible snake but that does not prevent your dog from being bitten because there happened to be an unsuspecting snake lying in the grasses.
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 20 years so prior to houses going up, it was literally just paddocks and farms and a haven for the reptiles.
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.
So if anyone lives near a body of fresh water, whether it be a running stream, a wetland or a stagnant bog, you will find snakes because their staple diet is here, frogs and mice!
Avoid allowing your dog to run off leash in grassy areas near creeks and wetlands. The snakes may be hunting for frogs or just coiled up taking in the sun and if your dog encounters them, they are at serious risk of getting bitten. Stay on the footpaths where you can see a clear path, keep your dog next to you so you can call it back quickly if necessary or keep the dog on leash to be safe.
If you didn’t know this was a snake hotspot, well 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. They become their most aggressive when they have just woken up from their hibernating state and during the peak of their breeding season, otherwise they tend to mind their own business.
Tigers and Browns 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.
Snakes are solar powered but more so, thermal powered, in that they need the sun and more importantly, warmth to charge their batteries and then once they are warm, they can go for hours. Eventually their battery runs out when 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! Always bring a hand torch or head torch if you are walking late at night near snake zones and keep the dogs on leash.
How do we keep snakes out of our homes?
We do often get asked how to stop snakes coming on the property and there is no easy solution. Something 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.
- Check your entire boundary and ensure it has no gaps, no holes underneath the fence palings, no easy climbing access.
- Trim native or ornamental grasses in your front yard so snakes do not have anywhere to hide.
- Keep plants closest to your house tidy, clean up underneath and trim away from fences.
- Pop pieces of timber either in the shed or go to the tip. Snakes love curling up in piles of warmed up junk!
- Run thin metal sheets buried slightly into the ground and about 1 metre above the ground, all along your boundary. This stops the snakes from crawling under as well as crawling over as they cannot grip slippery surfaces.
- If you do live in a snake hot spot and still fear that a snake may come into your yard, consider leaving the dog inside the house when you are out.
Why do dogs get bitten?
Dogs get bitten for three reasons.
- The dog saw it, chased it, hunted it and tried to get it and in this situation we are simply dealing with instincts and prey drive. Some dogs want to kill the snakes to make them go away because they are scared of them and some just want to kill the snakes because they are hunting prey. Either way way, some dogs are naturally drawn to them.
- The dog accidentally stood on it or stuck its nose in a bush where the snake happened to be. This is the most common reason a dog was bitten; it just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time!
- Dogs were allowed to run off leash through long grasses near ponds and waterholes on warm days where probability is pretty high. If dogs are allowed to run off leash in creek lined area on warm days, then you are taking a huge risk.
As mentioned earlier, snakes bite for two main reasons, to kill prey which can fit in its mouth (frogs, mice, insects, small marsupials, lizards, birds and carrion), or self defence. Snakes don’t go looking for dogs to bite because they cannot eat them, they are simply too big. They may threaten the dog if they are in their territory or more likely than not, purely act out of self defence, they will do what nature tells them to. Snakes will also flare up and chase if the dog continues to a threat and does not ease back but for the majority of time, snakes will flee the scene.
How do we know if the dog has been bitten?
Depending on where your dog was bitten, how much your dog moved after it was 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 if we suspect a snake bite 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 or find a dead or injured snake in your yard, 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 all 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 can become impaired and the heart rate can become 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:
- U- Vet Werribee Animal Hospital- 250 Princes Highway Werribee – 9731- 2000
- Advanced Vet Care- Level 1, 26 Robertson Street Kensington – 9092 0400
- Animal Accident and Emergency Essendon – 72 Hargrave Avenue Essendon Fields – 9379 0700
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 snake bite 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 antivenom 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 alone 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?
I have trained my Jack Russell Stanley to back away and drop by my side when he spots a snake when he is with me and while it has worked on one occasion after literally walking head on 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. Can you train your dog not to ever attack snakes? I would say no however, I would do loads of work teaching my dog to come away when one is spotted. Working on recall does no harm, it does not require any form of aversive training and can be reinforced. Would I guarantee it? Not at all as I also know that in the moment, instincts can easily override training. Below are some tips on how to teach your dog to possibly come away from a snake.
To train your dog to come away from a snake, I suggest buying some realistic looking rubber snakes from your local toy store or $2 Shop and starting to work on exceptional LEAVE IT followed by an immediate recall when your dog sees something that looks like a snake. The aim is to teach your dog to come running to you super fast when it spots it, rather than go running towards it. Turn it into a game, make it fun running away from the snake and coming back to you and ensure you have a super charged reinforcer, something absolutely delicious for coming away.
- Place the rubber snake on the ground a few metres away 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
- Now step back further, wait for your dog to spot the snake, say LEAVE IT followed by COME, calling it away from the plastic snake and then reinforce these two behaviours.
- Repeat this until you notice that as soon as your dog looks at the rubber snake, it comes immediately to you for a reinforcer without necessarily the need to tell it to leave it alone.
- Now get someone to help you get the plastic snake moving! Start by jiggling the fishing line attached to the plastic snake to make it move a little and as it notices it, cue your dog to LEAVE IT followed by COME. Then reinforce it.
- Now start slowly moving the plastic snake 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 at the other end of the line appearing neutral or not even in the picture.
- As soon as your dog notices movement, cue your dog to LEAVE IT followed by COME and reinforce it.
- Repeat this until you can see you dog noticing the plastic snake moving through the grass but coming immediately to you for a reinforcer.
- 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 only a suggestion and may help reduce the chances of your dog attacking a snake and as mentioned earlier, remember there is no guarantee at all.
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 and stay safe.