About six weeks ago, I heard the familiar bark of my dog coming from the lawn outside the kitchen window.
Billie — a border-collie blue-cattle-dog cross — has a really distinct bark when she’s rounded up a snake. It’s one loud, singular bark, repeated each time she jumps toward the snake and then lunges back to avoid its strike.
We live on the outskirts of Brisbane’s west, surrounded by thick bushland, and I’ve been hearing that bark a lot lately.
A few nights before, she’d cornered a brown tree-snake under the house. That time I’d managed to grab her, giving the snake a chance to get away. Two weeks before that it was a similar story with a green tree-snake.
But as I took the two steps down from the deck into the yard, a big eastern brown snake was reared back and striking repeatedly, clearly distressed by the barking dog in its face.
Out of instinct, I called to Billie to leave the snake alone. Distracted, she turned to me as the snake struck again.
It narrowly missed, but then I was unsure what to do: if I called to her again, the distraction might leave her open to getting bitten. If I left her, she was still in danger of killing the snake and getting bitten in the process.
A lot of pets get killed by snakes this time of year, and what you should do if you see your pet with a snake depends on what the state of play is, says Stuart McKenzie from Sunshine Coast Snake Catchers 24/7.
I asked him in retrospect, what would have been my best course of action.
After putting me on hold to take a call from a client with a lizard on the loose in their bedroom, he explains that if your dog or cat has already got the snake in its mouth, or if they’re entangled, you need to leave it alone
“If the dog’s running around with an eastern brown in its mouth, and the eastern brown’s still alive, then you’re not going to approach your dog,” he says.
Similarly, if the dog’s got the snake into a corner where the only escape route is past you, then you probably need to stay clear.
In my case, there was nothing stopping the snake making a quick getaway back into the bush behind it.
But as I approached, Billie jumped around behind the snake, causing it to bolt toward the house, with me in between.
I grabbed a shovel, not to kill it but to try to steer it away from heading under the veranda.
With two little kids running and crawling about I didn’t want it hanging around where I couldn’t see it.
But with the dog in tow the snake paid my feebly wielded shovel and I little regard as it shot between my legs.
Before I could grab her, the dog was in under the house after it, again cornering the snake, this time at the base of one of the outer house posts.
She’d so far never killed one, but I was reminded of her partner in crime, my parents’ young border collie Algie, who’d been found chewing on what turned out to be a harmless tree snake at my parent’s place recently.
I wasn’t keen to go in on my belly to try to get the dog out, and at this point was left to hope Billie didn’t get bitten — calling her was useless.
One option I didn’t think of, which Stu pointed out, was to spray the dog with the hose.
“A lot of dogs will just stand about a metre back and bark at it, maybe do a bit of lunging but never actually grab it, they’re just sussing it out,” he says.
“Get the hose out and just spray the shit out of the dog with water.
Treating people for snakebite is, in theory at least, pretty straightforward.
Snake venom travels through the lymphatic system, so applying a pressure bandage to the entire bitten limb can slow the venom’s progress through the body to a near standstill.
But at that point — with Billie under the house with the snake — all I could think was that she was going to get bitten, and I had no idea how to treat a dog for snake bite.
I didn’t know if a pressure bandage would work, and she’d probably be bitten on the face or torso anyway.
As it turns out, there’s really only one thing we can do: If you even suspect your pet has been bitten, get it in the car and straight to a vet, if you can.
Almost all vets will carry antivenom, and the sooner your pet can get treated, the greater its chance of survival, says Mark Haworth from UQ’s School of Veterinary Science.
“We will often attempt to collect a sample of urine, and you can use what is called a snake-venom detection kit,” says Dr Haworth.
“If the sample turns blue then that would tell you that it’s a particular [species that has caused] envenomation and we could give [your pet] antivenom.”
The biggest trap people fall into is waiting to go to the vet, either because they think it’ll be cheaper to wait and see, or because the animal appears to be ok, he says.
Dogs may show little signs of envenomation at first, or will often collapse, then get up, walk around and appear to be perfectly fine.
“That’s what we call pre-paralysis signs,” says Dr Haworth.
“They tend to recover over a few minutes and then they might walk around for a few minutes and then they rapidly deteriorate.”
Once they start showing signs of deterioration it can already be too late.
“I’ve seen animals that haven’t even made it to the medical centre,” he says.
“The owners have put them in the car and by the time they make it to [us] the animal has died.
“The biggest bugbear with me is people waiting. It usually costs more in my experience and the prognosis is worse.”
“But you have to be very careful. They can be freaking out and give you a bite if they’ve got a little bit of energy left.”
Failing mouth-to-mouth, chest compressions can also work.
“You kind of want to do it at a rate of 10-15 breaths per minute. You just want to see the chest rise and fall a little bit.”
Billie showed no signs of envenomation.
Although dogs have been known to last up to 24 hours before going downhill, in the morning she was still running around and healthy.
Through nothing but luck on my part, she had escaped getting bitten.
Her mate Algie though, didn’t get so lucky.
Just a few weeks later he was found lying dead on the pebbles outside my parent’s laundry.
The vet concluded it was a snakebite, and most probably an eastern brown.
In his case, my parents didn’t know he’d found a snake and there was nothing they could do.
I guess the moral of the story is, if you get the chance to do something, do it.