Quick Harry's been bitten by a Brown snake

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Google Maps location for Willunga Vet  Services

Willunga Vet Services
37 Main Rd
SA 5172

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8556 2075
8556 2654

Aldinga Vet Services
16 Heathersay Ave
Aldinga Beach
SA 5173

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8556 5498

Harry’s a real regular in our practice – everyone knows him! He’s certainly created some stress for his owners! After a year containing two cruciate ligament repairs, both the left and the right knee, Harry decided he needed to take on a large brown snake!

Now he has done this before, and gotten away with it, but this time was very very different.

Snakes pose a real threat to our pets in our area every summer. We easily treat 20+ cats and 10+ dogs every summer for snake envenomation (snake bite). Around Sellicks Beach/Hill, Aldinga and Willunga, we tend to see Brown snake incidents whilst around McLaren Flat, Myponga and Mt Compass, we see the occasional Black snake bite. However these areas contain both snakes in large numbers and without knowing the type of snake involved, there can be implications in the type of anti-venom used and the prognosis for survival.

Harry’s owners brought in the snake that had bitten him – a very mangled Brown, around 1.3m long.

Immediately after the bite, around 5:30pm, Harry collapsed but within a few minutes was looking normal again. This is a common report from owners and can be very mis-leading. Contrary to being ok, it can actually be a signal that a lethal dose of venom has been injected. Within 10 minutes of this sort of symptom, a repeat collapse and respiratory and cardiac arrest can occur and death.

Would Harry have the strength to survive?

Thankfully Harry’s owners live close to our Aldinga practice. At the clinic, he was looking alert, strong and stable but quite agitated and panty. We immediately started treatment.

His initial treatment included adrenaline, as well as anti-histamine and cortisone. These medications reduce the chance of an allergic reaction to the anti-venom. IV fluids were also started.

Due to the risk of a reaction, the anti-venom has to be diluted and slowly given over 20 minutes. At the 10-minute mark, Harry began to take a turn for the worse.

Thankfully Harry’s owners had just left and were not with him to see him in this terrible state. The snake venom had really taken control – affecting the muscles to his diaphragm, chest and his heart. With eyes bulging, and taking loud groaning gasps, foaming around the lips and with his whole body contorted, shaking and arched, Harry was trying to get oxygen into his body. This crash occurred within seconds.

There was no way Harry could survive without further help.

With the assistance of two vet nurses and two vets, we managed to pass a tube between his chomping teeth, over his swollen and purple tongue and into his windpipe. By this stage, he had lost the ability to stand or breathe. His pupils had become dilated and un-responsive to light and his heart rate had slowed and was very irregular.

Attached to oxygen and with manual respiration, Harry was in the fight of his life, just hanging on. We injected him with a diuretic to reduce some fluid accumulation that had built up on his chest and gave him more adrenaline and another drug to stimulate his heart rate. By this time, his first dose of anti-venom had been completed. Knowing how bad he was, we immediately started a second dose of anti-venom (which we’d pre-discussed and with his owners).

We’d phoned Harry’s owners during this struggle that had seemed to take forever and when they came rushing back in, Harry was lying comatose on his side on a heat pad in our treatment suite. His pulse oximeter was beeping sterilely in the background (this measures oxygen levels and his heart rate), with tubes coming from his mouth and front leg. By all intents and purposes, he looked dead.

Over these first couple of hours we gave Harry a breath of oxygen every 5-10 seconds, sometimes longer to see how he would cope. He was stable but critical – like a human patient in ICU on life support.

Things didn’t deteriorate, but then they hadn’t improved either, so around 2 hours into his treatment we gave him his third dose of anti-venom.

Now, in amongst all this crazy stressful madness, we’d also had to treat another dog for snakebite – a brown snake that looked almost identical to Harry’s. This was all with just a few sets of hands that had stayed on to help once the clinic was closed. This second dog also required intubation (a tube into the trachea) for oxygen and intensive care. Thankfully, and with a very different response to Harry, Gypsy was able to pull though.

Our out-of-hours service is available for emergencies, but things were certainly stretched at that point!

By around 11pm, Harry had shown a few twitches in the muscles of his legs – a subtle improvement but nothing had changed in his ability to breathe or respond to noise, touch or light.

There’d already been much soul-searching and discussion with Harry’s owners throughout the early evening and as midnight approached, this intensified. It was so hard to know whether Harry was going to make it or not. Were we simple prolonging the fight, to simply reach a sad and anguished end, or did Harry have the fight in him?

A joint decision was made, that he’d been through so much and we’d all come this far, that we’d continue on into the wee hours. Around midnight, Harry’s Mum went home to attempt some sleep – a difficult task with the picture of Harry in her mind! Our nurses went home and Harry’s Dad stayed on to lend a hand in staying alert and awake.

The night was balmy which didn’t help the eyelids! The clinic was quiet and dark except for the lights shining down on Harry’s still body and the steady drone of beeping in the background. The oxygen bag sighed quietly each breath we gave him.

It was difficult – how can you balance hope in your heart, and maintain a positive outlook, without running the risk of crushing defeat and heartache. And like any treatment, there was the financial aspect to bear in mind. Without pet insurance, Harry’s treatment fees had to come from somewhere.

So often, grief is heightened by the fact that treatment funds have to be balanced in with the demands of supporting a family, paying for the bills and so on. Major treatment decisions do sometimes have to be tempered and really openly discussed to make sure all parties (vets and clients) are on the same page.

We’re not in the business of persuading clients to spend money on their pets when the prognosis is zero. What’s the point in that? Our duty of care is to ensure that all of our clients have the best information on hand for the best care for their pet, and to be able to make an informed decision for their pet that they’ll feel comfortable with. Sometimes those decisions are heart breaking, at other times they can be hugely uplifting.

The difficulty with Harry was trying to work out whether we were making headway.

Ever so slowly, over the quiet morning hours, Harry’s functions returned. First his muscle twitches occurred more often and with more strength. Then they seemed to occur with sound and stimulation. His pupils were slowly restricting to light and a small jerk in his chest occurred rhythmically. This gradually increased until around 4am we were able to cease manual respiration for him. By 4:30am he was off oxygen and by 5pm his tube was removed.

Now, a little surgery had also occurred earlier in the night. Due to Harry’s frantic efforts to try and breathe as he crashed, he’d bitten into his tongue numerous times. Most of these holes were small and had clotted up but one continued to bleed and in the end we had to stitch the wound closed. Harry had also been bleeding from some of his injection sites – this was a specific anti-coagulant effect from the snake venom, a rare occurrence in Brown snakebites but common in Black snakebites.

By 5:30am, Harry was stable, resting on his chest, no longer bleeding and able to breathe for himself. Around 8am, once the day staff had clocked on, Harry’s very very tired Dad went home for some sleep!

We ended up keeping Harry in the clinic for another day, on IV fluids and anti-biotics, before he was really ready to go home.

A few days later, he came bouncing back into the waiting room for his re-check, full of beans and cheeky energy! WHAT A SURVIVOR!

Take a look at Harry’s photos – a real celebration of success. He’s been blessed with very caring, compassionate and dedicated parents.




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