Snakes explained: Correcting misinformation about Australian snakes
By Ross McGibbon
About the Author
The information I provide on this page derives from a life-long obsession with snakes, coupled with my experience working with these animals professionally, both as a snake catcher and a wildlife photographer specialising in venomous snakes. I use the content I capture in the field to be an ambassador for reptiles and educate the public about snake safety and awareness via my online platforms (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram & Flickr).
In my spare time, I study reptiles (unofficially) and strive to keep up to date on new research and anything reptile related. The topic of venom and snakebite are of particular interest to me. Furthermore, I am a full-time career firefighter and I care about public safety. As a firefighter, I am qualified in advanced first aid and I have first-hand experience in snakebite treatment (both as the victim and the one providing the first aid). At this stage in my life, I have the required knowledge and experience to advise the public on snake safety and awareness.
Image Left - A dream come true: Handling a wild King Cobra in Thailand in 2016
DOCUMENTARY: AUSTRALIAN VENOMOUS SNAKES & THEIR BEHAVIOUR
DON’T MISS my new educational documentary covering what every Australian needs to know about Australian venomous snakes and their behaviour. In this short film, you’ll see fascinating and never before seen footage of Australian venomous snakes. I’ll provide you with important information about Australian snakes. I’ll expose the truth about snakebite and animal related deaths in Australia. I’ll give you a detailed breakdown of the defensive behaviour of Australian venomous snakes, and finally, I’ll demonstrate the correct way to respond if you encounter a snake.
At approximately 215 known species, Australia is home to more snakes than any other country. Nearly half of these are terrestrial (land-dwelling) venomous snakes. It sounds daunting if you dislike snakes, however only about 40 of these terrestrial species possess venom that is considered potentially life-threatening to humans. Of these 40 species, roughly 10 have been recorded as responsible for human fatalities.
Many of Australia’s highly venomous snakes became infamous, when in 1979, they topped the charts (the LD50 test) for having the most potent venom in the world. A lot of well-known Australian venomous snakes were tested, along with a selection from overseas. This resulted in a list of ’the most venomous snakes in the world’. Since these results were published, the information has been subject to gross misinterpretation. The media, the public and snake enthusiasts alike have all put their own spin on it to suit their agenda, in many cases wearing it like a badge of honour at the expense of the snake’s reputation.
How many times have you heard that Australia has 9 of the top 10 deadliest snakes in the world, or a snake enthusiast boasting that, “This snake is the second most venomous in the world?” If you do your research, you will find that the LD50 test was purely an academic exercise to compare the toxicity of venoms using standardised test subjects - mice. The results were never meant to determine how dangerous or deadly these snakes are to humans.
Listed below are some of the major shortfalls with using the 1979 LD50 test results as a basis for ranking snakes as the most venomous, deadly or dangerous in the world:
- The LD50 test is performed on mice, not humans and the results do not necessarily provide an accurate representation of how harmful that venom is to humans.
- The LD50 test is performed only on mice. As venom evolves to work best on a snake’s preferred prey, if the venoms were tested on frogs, birds, lizards or any other prey type, the results would likely favour the snakes that prefer that particular prey. It is no coincidence that rodents are the preferred prey of most of the top-ranking snakes on the LD50 list.
- The LD50 test does not include all of the world’s 600+ venomous snakes. Many were left out. Additionally, a lot of new species have been discovered since then and a considerable amount of changes to taxonomy (classification/ naming of species) has occurred since 1979.
- The LD50 test does not take into account the venom yield of the snake (how much venom the snake can deliver in a bite). For example, the eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis) is around two and a half times more toxic than the coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), but the coastal taipan is capable of injecting twentyto thirty times more venom. Consequently, the result of a taipan envenoming in real life may differ substantially if the coastal taipan injects eight to twelve times more lethal doses than the eastern brown snake.
To summarise, the LD50 test is a useful exercise for scientists to compare the toxicity of venoms, given that human testing will likely never occur. However, the results of such experiments should not be used to infer how dangerous or deadly a species is. Moreover, the terms dangerous, deadly and most venomous do not mean the same thing.
If you want to determine how dangerous a snake is, there are important factors that must be considered, such as the snake's size, behaviour, temperament, habits, venom yield, fang size, prey type, envenomation rates, number of human fatalities attributed to that species, its likelihood of contact with humans, how its venom is known to effect humans and so on.
The term deadly refers to how many human fatalities that species is responsible for. Snakebite causes an annual death toll of between 81000 - 138000 people worldwide and Australia accounts for only two of those on average per year; our snakes are definitely not the deadliest.
In closing, it is true that Australia contains more venomous snakes than any other country in the world. We also have the highest number of medically significant snakes (snakes that possess venom that is potentially life threatening to humans). However, for their venom to become life threatening, first a bite and successful envenoming must occur, and our snakes don’t bite or envenom many people. Australia records around 200-500 snakebite cases annually and around 100 require antivenom, resulting in an average of only 2 human fatalities per year. Compare that to 50,000 snakebite deaths recorded in India each year, and you have your answer. Are Australian snakes the deadliest or most dangerous in the world? Not even close.
As reptiles cannot generate their own internal body warmth, all aspects of a snake's life rely on their ability to regulate their body temperature; whether it’s to hunt prey, digest a meal, find a mate, fight off disease and infection, or even just to pump blood around their bodies. As a result, activity patterns for snakes vary dramatically with the seasons. For most reptiles, activity increases in the warmer months and decreases in the cooler months.
When Spring arrives in September and the weather begins to warm up, activity levels increase dramatically. The warmer weather triggers most Australian snakes to breed. During breeding season, female snakes need to hunt more often in preparation for developing their eggs/young, and males need to travel long distances to find reproductive females. In some species, males compete for mating rights with females by engaging in male to male combat.
All this activity requires a lot of energy and therefore, a lot more food, which is why snakes are far more active in Spring and Summer. During this time, you need to be more prepared to encounter a snake and ensure you are taking more precautions around the home.
No, the Australian climate does not remain cold enough for long enough for snakes to enter hibernation. Our snakes are simply less active in the cooler months. This inactive period is called Brumation, which is a fancy name for ‘less active’.
Caution – In tropical/northern parts of Australia, where the temperature is extreme in summer, some snakes, such as the Coastal Taipan, prefer to breed over winter. Male taipans can be more active in winter as they search for females. Therefore, in some parts of Australia, it is a mistake to believe that you won’t encounter snakes during winter. Moreover, Tiger snakes and Copperheads are very cold tolerant and still come out to bask in winter.
During breeding season, some species of snakes engage in male to male combat to compete for the breeding rights of a nearby female. Males will "wrestle" each other, in what is sometimes confused with mating behavior, to determine who is stronger. Following a battle, the weaker male is forced to retreat and the victor wins the right to mate with a nearby female.
While this behavior may appear aggressive towards their rival, there is no scientific evidence that male snakes show more aggression towards people during this period. I offer the following information to explain why some people believe snakes become more aggressive in breeding season.
Following brumation (a dormancy/inactive period through the cooler months of the year), the activity level of snakes increases dramatically, peaking in spring and summer. Warmer weather triggers snakes to mobilise in search of food and a mate. The most commonly encountered snakes during this period are males with only one thing on their mind - mating. Because males range over large areas in search of females, it causes male snakes to instinctually follow the scent of females, often into residential areas. This is where increased levels of snake/human conflict can arise.
When a snake encounters a larger human or domestic pet (the family dog for example) in close proximity, they can react defensively to protect themselves. This behavior has nothing to do with snakes being ‘more aggressive during breeding season,’ they simply come into contact with humans and domestic animals more often during this period and will defend their personal safety, just as they would any other time of year. In summary, it is the increased number of encounters that leads to more conflict with snakes in breeding season, not increased levels of aggression in male snakes.
Image above: Highlands Copperhead (Austrelaps ramsayi) Barrington Tops NP, New South Wales (Photographed in breeding season). Highlands Copperheads are such beautiful natured snakes. They generally avoid biting unless stood on or severely harassed.
‘Aggression’, by definition is attacking unprovoked, which snakes do not do. A snake will only bite for two reasons; fear or food. As we are not prey for venomous snakes, that leaves only fear (the snake fears us and feels the need to defend itself).
What people perceive as aggression is actually misunderstood defensive behaviour or anti-predator strategies (behaviour designed to warn off predators in the wild). Read on to learn about defensive behaviour in detail.
When a snake suddenly encounters a larger animal, for example a human or our pets, they generally feel threatened by our size, and may respond in one of the following three ways: Fight, Flight or Crypsis.
Crypsis is derived from a Greek word, meaning “hiding or concealment”. It is the ability of an animal to conceal itself, especially from a predator, by having a colour, pattern, and shape that allows it to blend into the surrounding environment. A snake performing crypsis may simply remain still to avoid detection.
Flight or fleeing, is when a snake flees to the nearest available cover upon being disturbed. It is the most common response for wild animals, especially snakes, because it negates the risk of being injured or killed in a confrontation.
Sometimes, fleeing is as simple as disappearing into nearby vegetation or down a hole. However, if the snake is encountered while moving across open ground, your front lawn for example, the nearest cover or path of escape can sometimes be behind the person. When the snake flees for this cover, it can give the impression that the snakes is B-lining directly for us or ‘chasing’ us. In reality, it is just trying to reach safety, by first getting past you.
Fight is where the snake believes it must stand its ground and act offensively to ward off a perceived threat. To achieve this, a snake may exhibit the following behaviours:
- Rearing up,
- Flattening of the neck
- Mouth gaping
- Thrashing around
- Mock strikes, lunging and head butts
- Offensive advances
- Biting or dry biting
Each of these are anti-predator strategies, otherwise known as defensive behaviours and they are the behaviour most people have trouble understanding. The following paragraphs will explain each behaviour in detail.
Rearing – In the animal kingdom, smaller animals generally back down to larger opponents. Being that snakes are so close to the ground and relatively small in stature, if they want to ward off a potential predator, they need to look larger than they actually are. To achieve this, snakes often rear their fore-bodies up off the ground to appear taller.
Flattening of the neck – By flattening its neck, a snake can appear bigger than it really is. We’ve all seen how well cobras perform this behaviour, but some Australian snakes, such as tiger snakes, red-bellied black snakes and mulga snakes, perform this behaviour quite well. Neck flattening can be performed in an upright position, or while horizontal to the ground, known as a side-angle defensive display.
Mouth gaping – communicates when a snake is feeling agitated and it can be as subtle as dropping the lower jaw just a little. A full-mouth gape displaying the fangs and the mouth lining is used when a snake wants to go for maximum intimidation. Both Taipans and Brown snakes are well known for this behavior.
Thrashing – can be used to confuse a predator or make it difficult for a predator to seize a moving target. Thrashing can also kick up leaf litter or dust to further confuse the predator.
Mock strikes, lunges and head butts – Mock strikes and lunges are the snake’s equivalent of a boxer throwing a feint, or a punch that intentionally misses or falls short of the target in order to put their opponent on the back-foot. Snakes do this to give the impression they are striking, but without carrying the risk of personal injury by physically coming into contact with their opponent.
A snake may also head-butt to avoid damaging their fangs; if a snake was to bite something unnecessarily and damage its fangs, it may not be able to feed for some time until they recover.
Offensive advancing – is when a snake charges towards a perceived predator to force their opponent to retreat. When someone says they were chased by a snake, this is the behavior they are referring to. It is important to understand that this behavior is designed to warn off predators by appearing intimidating. We’ve all seen this behavior on nature documentaries when an elephant charges at another animal who gets too close. When the intruder runs away, the elephant returns to the herd. Snakes perform a similar behavior and may charge at you if you are too close. When you are far enough away for the snake to feel safe again, it will move off or go back to what it was doing.
Countless times while I’ve been filming snakes performing this behavior, the snake has advanced towards me in a defensive manner, only to dart down a hole, or into the nearest cover at the first available opportunity. When you see a snake perform this behavior, it is simply telling you to back off so it can escape, or at the very least, feel safe again
While these advances appear aggressive, it is generally not the intention of the snake to catch and bite you. Biting you does not benefit the snake in any way. The only thing a snake intends to bite and envenomate is its prey.
Image above: Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) performing offensive advancing, Kynuna, Queensland
Biting - As a last resort, a snake may bite if the former behavior has not been effective, or there was no time to perform defensive behavior, for example, the snake is stood on. Furthermore, when a snake bites to defend itself, a large majority of defensive bites are dry-bites. Read on to learn more about dry-bites.
Above image: Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textillis) Toowoomaba, Queensland
When a front-fanged venomous snake bites down with enough pressure, the muscles around the venom gland contract, forcing venom to flow along the venom ducts and through the fangs. A successful venomous bite generally depends on how effectively the snake has bitten the subject and whether the snake bites down hard enough to engage the muscles around the venom gland.
When defending themselves against a predator, snakes often strike out to intimidate their opponent without intending to deliver venom. A dry-bite occurs when a snake bites a subject, but does not inject venom. Dry bites may just be quick defensive bites, or glancing bites, where the fangs contact the victim’s skin, but the snake does not hold on long enough, or bite down with enough force, to result in the successful delivery of venom.
While further research is required on this topic, it is becoming widely accepted that venomous snakes instinctively know when to use, and when not to use their venom. Put simply, if a venomous snake bites a prey item, their intent is to inject venom 100% of the time, or they risk going hungry. Alternatively, when a venomous snake bites to defend itself, they don’t always inject venom, presumably for two reasons;
1) There is no situation where the snake benefits from using its venom on a non-prey item; it is a waste of venom and risks injury to the snake.
2) If a snake is faced with a life and death situation and a confrontation were to take place, no matter how venomous the snake is, its venom won’t act fast enough to stop the predator from killing the snake in the first place, rendering venom ineffective as a defensive strategy when delivered from a bite.
In the case of the Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textillis), the species that is responsible for the most human fatalities in Australia, statistics show that the rate of envenoming on humans is approximately 20-40%, meaning dry bites occur in 60-80% of bite cases. With such a low rate of envenoming on humans, it stands to reason that they instinctively know not to use their venom on anything they cannot eat.
Above image: Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textillis) Winton, Queensland
If a snake is performing defensive behaviour due to your close proximity to it, for example; rearing up, flattening its neck, mock striking etc., then removing yourself from the snake’s vicinity as quickly as possible is your highest priority. When you are at a safe distance or out of the snake’s field of view, the snake will stop perceiving you as a threat and return to its natural behavior.
If you suddenly find yourself extremely close to a snake, for example you almost step on one, or one slithers past very close to you, freezing and remaining extremely still is the best course of action to avoid provoking a defensive reaction from the snake. If you move, you may alert the snake to your presence and provoke a defensive reaction. You may then let the snake move off in its own time, or as long as the snake remains calm, you can slowly move away when you feel it is safe to do so.
If you see a snake in the wild, remember that they are native wildlife and belong there. Keep your distance and admire from afar. Do not approach the snake as you may provoke a defensive reaction.
If you find a snake in your yard there is no need to panic. Think safety first and calmly move any children or pets inside and alert anyone in the immediate vicinity and your neighbours if necessary. If you can achieve this while someone keeps an eye on the snake, it will assist snake catchers to find the snake when they arrive, or it will at least provide you with some piece of mind if you know where it went.
If this is the first time you have encountered it, more often than not, the snake is just passing though in search of food, water, or a mate. If it stays on your property and you want it removed, then call your local snake catcher. In this case, it is best to keep an eye on the snake and call from a mobile phone, preferably using a number you have saved in your phone by being prepared.
If the snake is in your house, try to contain the snake to the room it is in by closing internal doors and rolling up a towel and placing it along the bottom of the door. Never try and remove a snake without the appropriate permit, training and experience.
Image above: Dugite (Pseudonaja affinis) Perth, Western Australia. Dugites are the most common snake removed from Perth residents, accounting for up to 80% of relocations. Despite bing highly venomous and very common, there has been only 2 recorded human fatalities attributed to this species in the last 35 years, due to their shy nature. When encountered they prefer to flee and only defend themselves if their personal space is violated.
When people recount experiences of being ‘chased’, most people wrongly believe it is the snake’s intention to catch and bite them. Please see the Offensive Advancing section to better understand this behavior.
In Australia, many people wrongly believe that snakes are territorial. Territorial animals such as wolves and lions mark out a piece of land as their territory and defend that area by attacking other territorial animals that trespass. Snakes do not mark out a territory and defend it against humans or domestic animals. For this reason, it is incorrect to describe snakes as territorial in this manner.
Rather than a territory, snakes have a 'home range' or an area in which they live. They move around within this home range in search of resources such as prey, water, areas of refuge and a mate during breeding season.
I believe that the term ‘territorial’ has been used incorrectly by those who encounter a defensive snake. What these people need to understand is the snake isn’t defending its territory, it is defending its personal safety because it perceives you as a large potential predator.
When male snakes are observed in combat, this behavior can also be perceived as the males being ‘territorial’. They are not actually fighting to defend their territory, they are fighting for dominance over their opponent. The victor wins the right to mate with a nearby female.
Image above: Tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) Barrington Tops, New South Wales. Tiger Snakes are often branded as 'Territorial' due to their defensive behaviour, however they are defending their personal safety, not a territory.
The only Australian snakes known to exhibit maternal care are Carpet Pythons. They coil around the clutch of eggs to incubate them until they hatch. When the eggs hatch, she is no longer needed and she leaves the hatchlings to fend for themselves. During incubation, if a female Capet Python is coiled around her eggs and is harassed, she may strike at the aggressor to protect them. This is the only occurrence when an Australian snake will defend their young/eggs.
Image above: Coastal Carpet Python (Morelia spilota) coiled around her clutch of eggs. Image Credit: Sunshine Coast Snake Catchers 24/7
From day one, hatchling/newborn Australian snakes are equipped with every instinct they need to survive on their own. Adult males leave the female immediately after mating, so there is never a protective father around.
In oviparous snakes (egg laying snakes), the female leaves her eggs soon after laying them. The exception is carpet pythons as outlined in the previous section – Do snakes protect their young or eggs?.
In ovoviviparous snakes (snakes that give birth to live young in embryonic sacks), the mother leaves her young soon after giving birth. The young eventually scatter and go on to live solitary lives as did their parents.
To summarise, if you see a juvenile snake there will never be a protective parent around unless you find a carpet python coiled around her eggs.
Image above: Mother and neonate (newborn) Bardicks (Echiopsis curta) Wanneroo, Western Australia. Image credit: Brian Bush. These neonate Bardicks will leave their mother within hours of being born to fend for themselves. Their mother provides no maternal care post birth.
A bite from an adult snake always has the potential to be more serious than a bite from a juvenile due to the superior physical attributes and abilities of the adult snake.
Juveniles have much smaller fangs, less venom and a lot less experience biting and envenoming prey compared to their adult counterparts. If a juvenile snake exhausted all of its tiny venom reserves, it may only be a fraction of what an adult could deliver, even if the adult was conserving its venom.
That said, juveniles of highly venomous species still possess enough venom to kill an adult human and should not be underestimated. Whether a snake is an adult or a juvenile, treat all snake bites the same, apply snakebite first aid and seek urgent medical attention.
Image above: Juvenile Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) Yallingup, Western Australia. At no more than 15cm long, their venom still has the potential to kill.
Snakes are protected wildlife under Australian Law, it is even illegal to touch a snake without a permit in most states. You are however, permitted to use whatever means necessary to protect yourself, pet or family member if they are being attacked by a wild animal, including lethal force if necessary.
This is a grey area for some people, so let me explain the difference. If a snake attacks you, your family member or pet and you use a garden tool to fight it off, killing the snake in the process, you are not breaking the law. This DOES NOT include encountering a snake on your property, going and getting a gun or shovel and killing it simply for being a snake, and it certainly does not include going into the bush and killing snakes in their natural habitat. These acts are illegal, immoral and completely unnecessary.
In Australia we only have around 2 deaths a year from snakebite, so they are nowhere near as dangerous as the public perceives them to be. Statistics have proven that children are rarely bitten. It’s usually adult males trying to kill, capture or otherwise interfere with the snake who are bitten. If you want to protect your family, you are not much good to them after you have been bitten.
Furthermore, killing snakes is a ‘band aid’ solution. It does very little, if anything to solve the property owners ‘perceived snake problem’. The following reasons are why you shouldn’t kill snakes.
- By confronting the snake to kill it, you are increasing your chance of being bitten significantly. You are no use to your family in a hospital bed or dead.
- ‘Better the devil you know’ - Eliminating the resident snake (or snakes) opens up a niche for other snakes to fill. If you remove snakes, vermin numbers increase and you attract more snakes. New snakes may not know the area as well as the ones that grew up there and may not be as good at keeping out of your way.
- Snakes are protected wildlife and it is illegal to kill them. Heavy fines can apply.
- Snakes are natures best form of pest control. Without snakes, introduced rats and mice can reach plague proportions, impacting the livelihood of farmers. It is quite ironic that the majority of farmers kill the very animals helping them.
- Australia is home to around 215 species of snakes, of which, around 40 species of terrestrial (land dwelling) venomous snakes possess venom that is potentially life threatening to humans. Of those, approximately 10 species are recorded as being responsible for human fatalities. Most people cannot identify the species they are killing. Often, harmless legless lizards or non-venomous snakes are killed due to the person’s lack of knowledge and ignorance. When I was 13 my step-father killed a harmless black-headed python on our farm because he thought it was an Inland Taipan, simply because it had a black head. If he’d known more about the snakes in his area, he might have known that inland taipans didn’t occur in our region and that Black-headed pythons are non-venomous/harmless. Furthermore, Black-headed pythons prey on other reptiles, including venomous snakes. The very snake he killed would have eliminated more brown snakes than he ever could have.
- Snakes are a vital part of the ecosystem. They play a large role as middle-order predators, meaning they keep other populations of animals balanced while providing food for other animals such as birds, carnivorous mammals and other reptiles. Snakes, just like any other from of wildlife, have an important role to play in nature. Killing wildlife because you fear it or simply do not understand it is ignorant, immoral and only serves to unbalance our already fragile ecosystem.
Image above: Burton's legless lizard (Lialis burtonis) Exmouth, Western Australia. Australia is home to over 44 species of legless lizards. Despite being non-venomous and harmless, they are often mistaken for snakes and sadly suffer the same fate.
First and foremost, killing snakes is the LEAST effective way to protect your family and pets because it is reactive instead of proactive, not to mention dangerous. Killing snakes does very little (if anything) to solve a person’s perceived ‘snake problem’. There are far more effective precautions you can take and I will list them below. (Pets I will cover in the next segment called Snakes & Pets).
- Learn your local snakes to know which are potentially harmful and which are not. You can purchase books, phone apps or snake identification posters. Alternatively, reach out to your local snake catcher or venomous snake handling training provider and ask them if they can provide or recommend any of this material.
- Save your local snake catcher’s number in your phone and call them for advice and relocations if required.
- Don’t attract snakes in the first place. Snakes are often attracted to yards and houses when the human inhabitants unknowingly provide food, water and shelter for the snake. Many of our large venomous snakes eat rodents and become attracted to our homes, yards, farm sheds and chook pens to hunt rats and mice. To reduce mice populations, don’t feed them. Keep grain and pet food in sealed containers.
- Most of our venomous snakes possess short fangs and clothing can provide protection against a bite. Wear closed in shoes and long pants when bushwalking or working in the yard. Use gloves when gardening.
- Don’t walk around at night without a torch and stick to main paths and roads rather than cut through bush or long grass.
- Houses and yards can be an attractive place for snakes to shelter. Carpet pythons and tree snakes are regularly found curled up in ceilings, enjoying the security and warmth. Ground dwelling venomous snakes such as brown snakes, taipans, black snakes, tiger snakes and others will shelter underneath concrete slabs, in timber and rubbish piles and under sheets of corrugated iron. Keep materials stacked up off the ground and your yard tidy.
- Snakes prefer not to move around in open areas to avoid being killed by birds of prey and other predators. Keeping your grass short and gardens maintained will provide snakes with less cover. Low shrubbery up against the house is not recommended as it provides cover for snakes close to the home.
- Setting a good example around wildlife is extremely important for children. If a child witnesses an adult kill a snake, or adults talk of hating and killing snakes, children will be more likely to imitate their parents when they encounter one. The same applies to your fear of snakes. If you have a fear of snakes, don’t pass this onto your children. It is important to teach your children the realistic potential danger of snakes, as well as a healthy respect for all wildlife, not just the cute stuff.
- Learn snakebite first aid and have a snakebite first aid kit on hand in your home, vehicle and on your person if you are bushwalking or working in the bush.
- If you regularly have snakes around the house, why not complete a venomous snake-handling course so you can safely remove them yourself. Completing this course will give you the confidence and knowledge to manage the issue yourself. You can locate course providers by searching ‘venomous snake handling courses’ in Google, followed by your town.
- Complete a basic first-aid course and keep your certification current. It will teach you snakebite first aid and many other important skills to respond to most common first-aid incidents.
- Snake repellent devices (solar powered pulse-emitting units) are NOT proven to be effective and there is no research that supports their effectiveness to repel snakes. In my opinion (and in the wider snake community) they are a useless product designed to make a quick buck off peoples’ fear of snakes. The same applies to any concoctions of chemicals or oils marketed as snake ‘deterrents’ or ‘repellents’.
Image left: Brown tree snake sitting on the warm solar panel on top of a so called "snake repeller".
Each year in Australia, veterinarians record between 6000-7000 snakebites on domestic animals. For Australian pet owners, the conflict between snakes and domestic pets is a risk. Dogs can be curious or territorial towards snakes, while cats instinctually hunt snakes and other wildlife for fun.
When suddenly greeted by a domestic animal, venomous snakes can become defensive and bite to defend themselves, while large, non-venomous pythons and tree snakes often target our small furry and feathery pets for an easy meal. With over 215 species of snakes in Australia and half of those venomous, it’s not an issue that is going away, however you can minimise the risk significantly by adopting a proactive attitude and knowing which precautions to take.
- Walk your dog on a lead when in bushland and don’t allow them to wander off into sand dunes or long grass at the beach or at parks.
- Train your pets. The cost of treating a dog for snakebite typically ranges between $4000 - $8000. Avoiding expensive vet bills are a good reason to invest in dog training. You can go as far as having your dog specifically trained to avoid snakes (snake avoidance training), or at the very minimum, provide your dog with a level of training so they will come when called. If your dog is wandering off into bushland or investigating something suspicious, simply being able to call it back might avoid a snakebite. Google search for snake avoidance training in your local area.
- Have your vet’s current emergency contact details and address saved in your mobile phone.
- Consider obtaining pet insurance to avoid those hefty vet bills.
- Protect your pets. Pythons and Brown tree snakes regularly enter chicken pens, bird aviaries and guinea pig enclosures to prey on the occupants. They can also be found in roof cavities hunting for rodents and possums. Ensure your aviaries and pet enclosures are snake proof with 1x1cm steel mesh and don’t forget to secure their enclosures or bring them in before dark.
- Keep cats indoors at all times. Allowing them to roam and kill wildlife is a major problem in Australia. Keeping them indoors keeps your cat safe from snakes, cars and dogs while reducing the chance of injuries due to fights with other cats. If you want your cat to experience outdoor playtime, consider making them an outdoor enclosure or run.
- Supervise puppies and kittens while they are outdoors on any property with surrounding bushland. Pythons can sit on verandas and in gardens waiting for an easy meal. They often hunt when it’s dark. Between dusk and dawn are when your pets are most at risk.
- Know the signs and symptoms of snakebite. Early detection of snakebite will give your pet the best chance to survive a bite.
Signs & Symptoms may includes:
- Weakness or severe lethargy. Collapse
- Shaking or twitching
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty blinking or opening eyes
- Blood in urine
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- loss of function of body movements, which could be seen as difficulty walking
- Breathing difficulties (rapid and shallow)
- Excessive drooling
- Bleeding from snake bite wound
- Paralysis or collapse
- Coma or death
These are only some of the more common symptoms. It is possible that your dog could display some, all or other symptoms. The important thing is that if you suspect your pet has been bitten by a snake, take them to the vet immediately for a proper assessment.
Image above: Carpet pythons will invade any enclosure they can fit into for an easy meal. In this case they were just after the eggs, however larger pythons may take the chickens.
Image left: Protect your pets with 1x1cm steele mesh enclosures.
Image right: A dog narrowly escapes death while killing an Eastern Brown snake.
If you or someone you are with is bitten by a snake, following the below steps significantly improves your chances of survival.
1. Remove yourself (or the patient) from danger
2. Call an ambulance/ send for help. If you are alone and have no means to call for help, then apply a pressure bandage as outlined in step 4 and calmly move to where you can reach help.
3. Keep the patient as still and calm as possible
4. Perform the Pressure Immobilisation Technique by:
- Removing any watches or jewellery from the effected limb ASAP. If swelling occurs, these items may restrict blood flow and cause severe discomfort.
- If bitten on a limb and assuming you have the recommended minimum of 2 x bandages, apply the first bandage over the bite site as soon as possible. Elasticised bandages (10-15cm wide) are preferred over standard crepe bandages. If neither are available, clothing or other material should be used.
- Apply the second bandage, commencing at the fingers or toes of the bitten limb and extending upward covering as much of the limb as possible. WARNING: DO NOT APPLY THE BANDAGE SO TIGHT THAT YOU CUT OFF CIRCULATION. First Aid is not designed to stop blood flow. The bandages should moderately compress the skin to trap the venom in the lymph (clear fluid under the skin). The bandage should be firm and you should be unable to easily slide a finger between the bandage and the skin.
- Alternatively, a single bandage may be used to achieve both pressure on the bite site and immobilisation of the limb. In this method, the bandage is initially applied to the fingers or toes and extended up the limb as far as possible to cover both the limb and the bite site.
- Splint and immobilise the limb.
- Keep the patient immobilised and at rest until help arrives
5. If the patient falls unconscious and stops breathing at any stage, CPR must commence immediately. CPR takes priority over the Pressure Immobilisation Technique. If possible, use a second person to complete the Pressure Immobilisation Technique, but do not interrupt CPR to do this.
6) Monitor patient’s breathing and circulation until help arrives. In some remote areas where ambulance services may be delayed or unable to access your location, it may be beneficial to begin travelling to meet the ambulance. Caution - keep the patient immobilised and at rest at all times during transport
- DO NOT cut or excise the bitten area or attempt to suck venom from the bite site.
- DO NOT wash the bitten area.
- DO NOT apply an arterial tourniquet. (Arterial tourniquets that cut off circulation to the limb are dangerous. Tourniquets are not recommended for any type of bite or sting in Australia)
- DO NOT bandage individual fingers or toes
- DO NOT remove the bandages or splints before evaluation in an appropriate hospital environment.
References for this above info is the ARC (Australian Resuscitation Council) who are the leading body in Australia for First Aid, however this is GENERAL INFORMATION ONLY and should not be taken as formal training.