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Cats and Snakes - First Aid For Cats Bitten By Snakes

Cats are hunters by nature and unfortunately not able to discriminate between harmful prey and nonharmful prey. There are poisonous snakes throughout the world and it would be too hard to list poisonous snakes country by country so this article will aim to provide general information on snake bites, but not snake species specific to any one country.

The most common snake bites to occur in cats in Australia are from the Eastern brown snake, tiger snake, death adder, copperhead, black snake and the red-bellied black snake.

Venomous snakes in the United States can include the copperhead, rattlesnake, cottonmouth, coral snake.

The majority of snake bites occur on the cat's head, neck and legs. Bites on the body can happen, and tend to be more dangerous, the closer to the heart the quicker the venom can travel around the body and the more dangerous.

Snakes are more prevalent in the warmer months, but in some areas they can be found year-round. We have had a venomous snake in winter a few years ago.

What is the difference between a venomous and non-venomous snake?

Most (but not all) venomous snake has elliptical pupils (slit-like, like a cat) and a non-venomous snake has round pupils. Even non-venomous snakes will bite, and while they may not poison the cat, the bite can cause pain and infection.

What is snake venom?

Venom is a modified saliva containing zootoxins (toxins produced by an animal) which is injected into the skin via the hollow fangs in the snake's mouth. It is used as a defensive mechanism against predators and to also kill the snake's prey. Venom can vary depending on the species, and may contain toxins which affect the blood (hemotoxins), certain cells (cytotoxins), nervous system (neurotoxins) and muscles (myotoxins).

What are the symptoms of a snake bite in cats?

There can be considerable variation in symptoms of snake bite depending on the species and age of the snake as well the amount and potency of the venom. The size of the cat, any underlying medical conditions your cat may have, the amount of subcutaneous fat, as well as the thickness of the fur, can also be factors. That is not to say that a snake bite in a fully grown Maine Coon should be treated any less seriously than a snake bite in a young kitten. All snake bites are all extremely dangerous to all cats, and veterinary treatment is always necessary.

It is quite rare to see puncture marks on your cat, they are either hidden by the fur or due to swelling. So don't assume that the absence of puncture marks means your cat has not been bitten by a snake.

There are two stages which develop after your cat has been bitten. Pre-paralytic and paralytic. Symptoms include:

Pre-paralytic syndrome:

  • Severe pain around the bite

  • Drooling

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Trembling

Paralytic syndrome:

  • Dilated (large) pupils and fixed pupils which don't respond to light, normally the pupils would constrict (become smaller) due to increased light

  • Muscle weakness

  • Change in meow

  • In-coordination (drunken gait)

  • Rapid pulse and heartbeat

  • Difficulty breathing or increased/shallow breaths (tachypnea)

  • Blood in urine (hematuria)

  • Paralysis which starts at the back legs and moves towards the cat's head

  • Coma

It is important to repeat that not all signs will be present, they may also come and go.

What should you do if your cat is bitten by a snake?

Get your cat to the veterinarian immediately. Call ahead to let them know you are on your way. In some cases, your veterinarian may not have antivenom on hand, another important reason for you to call ahead, so you can be re-directed to another practice if necessary.

If you have a person to help you, do the following below on the way to the veterinarian:

  • Remove the cat's collar

  • Keep the bitten area lower than the heart

  • Keep the cat quiet and calm, a rapid heart rate will help the venom to move more quickly around the body.

  • Apply a pressure bandage over and around the bite to slow down venom spreading to the heart

  • If there is no heartbeat or pulse, administer CPR

This should only be carried out if there's more than one person.  It is better to drive your cat straight to the veterinary practice than waste additional time and delaying urgent medical treatment.

 

How is a snake bite treated?

 

Treatment is aimed at reversing the effects of the venom as well as treating symptoms. He will use a snake venom test kit to determine the kind of snake that has bitten your cat as well as complete blood count, biochemical profile, urinalysis and coagulation profile. Once the type of snake bite has been determined your veterinarian will administer the appropriate antivenom. Some cats will need multiple vials of antivenom during treatment.

 

Supportive care will also be necessary and will include:

  • IV fluids to maintain blood pressure and help protect the kidneys

  • Oxygen therapy or if your cat is unable to breathe on his own will be placed on a ventilator

  • A feeding tube may be required if your cat us unable to eat due to muscle paralysis

  • Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat secondary infections

  • Analgesics may be necessary to treat pain

Aftercare:

 

Administer all medications as instructed by your veterinarian

Keep your cat indoors while he recovers

Please be aware that antivenom doesn't offer your cat lifetime protection from snake bites. It is not a vaccine and only works during that particular exposure, not against future snake bites

 

What NOT to do:

  • Do NOT allow your cat to walk

  • Do NOT cut the bitten area

  • Do NOT attempt to suck the venom out of the bite

  • Do NOT apply a tourniquet

Keeping snakes out of your garden:

 

The best way to avoid snakes in your garden is to provide an environment which isn't attractive to snakes.

  • Keep the garden free of long or overgrown plants

  • Keep the garden free of debris, such as corrugated iron, building materials, old junk etc

  • Keep your lawn short

  • When installing fences, dig them at least 8-12 inches into the ground

  • Don't leave containers of water lying around

  • If you have a shed, keep it free or rodents

  • Remove fallen fruit from the ground as this encourages rodents, which will, in turn, encourage snakes

  • Avoid wood piles, especially in the summer months. If you do have a wood pile, make sure it is well away from your house and not accessible to your cats or children

  • Avoid rockeries, which provide an excellent habitat for snakes to hide

Also see:

 

Poisoning in cats   Spider bites   Insect bites and stings