Snakes and the city

You might remember the stories about tiger snakes being seen on the beach at St Kilda a couple of years ago. This certainly surprised lots of people, but tiger snakes (and copperheads) do live in coastal dunes around Australia. In fact, if you looked hard enough, you'd probably find brown and black snakes are not that far away either.

We just don't see them much, because although we think of them as cold-blooded sun lovers, snakes are often out and about at night. They're looking for food, such as frogs, lizards, birds and even small mammals. If they can't find food in the dunes, they'll look elsewhere, including around your house.

Where tiger snakes live (from The University of Melbourne, Biomedical Sciences department)

Where tiger snakes live (from The University of Melbourne, Biomedical Sciences department)

How do we know snakes are around your house?

Because on the 8 November, two little dogs were rushed into our Elwood practice by their very worried owners. The dogs were covered in the blood – not their own blood – it was the blood of a snake they killed in their (small, completely paved) Elwood courtyard. 

Although they showed no symptoms at the time, we sent them to an emergency centre for testing and, if necessary, treatment. One of them tested positive for tiger snake venom.

Fortunately, this little dog was given snake antivenom before developing severe (and potentially fatal) symptoms.

What are the signs of a snake bite?

Australian snakes have complex venoms. In the one snake, we might have a combination of:

  • neurotoxins – which attack the nervous system causing signs such as weakness, paralysis and convulsions
  • pro-coagulant toxins – which trigger a clotting cascade causing the body to run out of clotting factors leading to uncontrolled bleeding
  • haemotoxins – which cause red blood cells to fall apart
  • myotoxins – which cause severe muscle damage

Signs will vary depending on the predominant toxin(s) and the amount of toxin delivered. While we've all heard about Australian snakes causing death within minutes (due to the neurotoxins), it's important to remember that some of the other toxins can take hours or even days to become recognisable. Cats also tend to show more subtle signs than dogs (and take longer to be diagnosed).

Potential signs of snakebite include:

  • sudden weakness followed by collapse (which immediately after a bite can be followed by 'apparent' recovery – note that this actually means a fatal amount of toxin has been delivered and your pet needs urgent antivenom to survive)
  • shaking or twitching of the muscles and difficulty blinking
  • vomiting
  • loss of bladder and bowel control
  • dilated pupils
  • paralysis
  • blood in urine

If you think there is any chance your pet might have been bitten, seek attention immediately.