Spring is here and with it comes warmer weather, colourful flowers, longer days, and the end of hibernation! Yes, unfortunately the warmer weather does mean that the chances of encountering a slithering reptile on your daily walk have increased somewhat. Fortunately, while there are over 130 snake species in South Africa, most of them are not dangerous to animals or humans. However, there are a handful that are venomous and a bite to you or your hound, can be fatal, so we’ve listed the most dangerous snakes found in South Africa below, as well as what to do (and what NOT to do) in the event of being bitten.
Venomous Snakes in South Africa according to www.nature-reserve.co.za
- The Black Mamba can be found in the North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northern KwaZulu-Natal Province. It is Africa’s largest venomous snake and can grow up to 4.5 metres. It is one of the fastest snakes and can move at over 20km/hour. The Black Mamba is often olive coloured to dark brown and has a coffin shaped head. It gets its name from the colour of the inside of its mouth which is black. It can inject fast-acting neurotoxins which paralyses. They inject powerful doses of venom and a man can be dead within 20 minutes of being bitten if the fangs hit a major vein or artery.
- The Puff Adder can be found throughout Southern Africa and are considered extremely dangerous because they do not move out of humans’ way. They are thick, heavy bodied snakes that are seldom over 1 metre long. The head is large, flattened and triangular in shape. They vary in colour widely from blackish to brown and have a row of backward pointing dark brown pale edged chevrons along their backs. They also have very long fangs and inject their venom (which is cytotoxic and haemotoxic) deeply. It causes severe pain and swelling in the bitten limb, haemorrhages and nausea. Death is often from secondary effects caused by the swelling, such as kidney failure.
- The Boomslang can be found all over South Africa except the Northern Cape and part of the Free State. They have very large eyes and a characteristic egg-shaped head. They are highly variable in colour with males being light green to black with black or blue scale edges, and adult females brown or green. As its name suggests, it is usually found in trees or small shrubs. The Boomslang’s venom is haemotoxic and victims die from internal and external bleeding. Their victim can end up bleeding from all orifices. The venom is very slow acting and it can take up to 24 hours for symptoms to appear.
- Cape Cobra are variable in colour from reddish brown to olive brown, yellowish and black. Found in the Cape Provinces, Free State and south western regions of the Eastern Cape, the Cape Cobra’s signature move is when it raises the forefront of its body off the ground, spreads its hood and makes a hissing sound. When in this defensive mode, it will readily strike. They have powerful neurotoxins that cause paralysis and shuts down breathing.
- Rinkhals is a related member of the cobra family that have the ability to shoot venom from their fangs usually aiming for a person’s face. Found in the Southern Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State and parts of KwaZulu-Natal, they usually spray their venom in a person’s eyes and this can cause temporary or permanent blindness.
- Mozambican Spitting Cobra can be found in the northern areas of South Africa. It is a relatively small and thin snake that can spit its venom between 2 and 3 meters, usually aiming for the eyes.
If bitten, the symptoms and severity of the bite depend on a wide range of factors; was it a non-venomous or a venomous snake; which species of snake was it; the age and size of the dog (and human), and where the bite occurred. (Bites closer to the heart are more serious as the venom will be pumped through the body rapidly.) In dogs, bites occur most often on the limbs or muzzle.
Warning signs that your dog has been bitten by a venomous snake
- Rapid (or shallow) breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Pale gums
- In the later stages, paralysis
What NOT to do in the event of a snake bite
- The adrenalin rushing through your veins speeds up your metabolism which causes the venom to spread faster. That’s why it’s important to keep your dog calm if your dog is the victim
- Try and suck the poison out
- Wash the wound
- Use a tourniquet
- Chase and kill the snake
What TO do in the event of a snake bite
- Try to identify the snake by taking note of its size, shape of the head and colour patterns. Take a photo if possible.
- Take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your dog from further harm, including being bitten by a stressed-out dog.
- Look for fang marks and wrap a clean bandage on the affected limb snugly (but not too tight). This will reduce the amount of venom from entering the bloodstream.
- Try and keep the affected area lower than the heart and get to the nearest animal (or human) hospital as soon as possible.
The hospital will need to know as much information about the snake as possible in order to treat the victim accordingly. In most cases where a venomous snake bite has occurred, anti-venom will need to be given. The anti-venom is specific to each type of venom so it’s important the doctor knows which one to administer. The Boomslang’s venom for example is haemotoxic, which is slow-acting and the symptoms may only appear later. Creating anti-venom is a very slow and tricky process in which horses are gradually immunized to the venom of a species of snake and then it’s blood collected, separated and purified to make anti-venom, which contains specific antibodies to the toxins in the snake venom. This is a very expensive process, so expect to pay the price.
Unfortunately, seeing as this is a highly specialised field, not all animal hospitals will stock anti-venom. If you can, call ahead and if your vet/animal hospital is not able to help, they can refer you to the nearest animal medical centre who stocks it. In Cape Town, Cape Animal Medical Centre in Kenilworth (021 – 674 0034), Panorama Veterinary Clinic (021 – 930 6632) and Tygerberg Animal Hospital – Bellville (021) 91 911 91 are some of the few places that stock anti-venom. If you are elsewhere in the country, it’s worth contacting the South African Vaccine Producers (SAVP) which is situated in Sandringham, Johannesburg. They are the manufacturers of anti-venom in South Africa and can direct you to your nearest stockist. (011) 386-6063/2.
How to prevent a snake bite from occurring
- If you are in a known snake habitat, keep your dog on a lead and a keep a sharp look out
- Stay on marked trails and paths, where it’s easier to spot snakes
- Don’t let your dog poke his nose in holes or under logs
- If your dog is particularly curious, pawing at something, call him (or pull him) away. Rather be safe than sorry!
- If you spot a snake, stop moving. If you and your dog are standing still, it won’t see you as a threat and will more than likely glide away.
- If it is cornered, back away slowly, giving it an escape route.
A snake won’t necessarily prey on its victim but it will strike defensively, so an innocent sniff or mis-guided footstep could end up with disastrous consequences. As they say, prevention is better than cure! As we head into summer, be vigilant on your walks, especially if you are walking in a snake’s natural habitat.