Here’s one summer danger for cats you might not have considered: snake bites on cats. When the weather gets warmer, snakes slither out of hibernation. Of course, the safest bet is to keep your cat indoors only and away from snakes. But, what if your cat encounters a snake while walking on a harness? Or a snake somehow makes his way into a would-be safe enclosure like a catio? As we all know, cats are curious, and when a cat spots a snake she will naturally want to interact with this strange new creature — perhaps even by attacking the animal. This is a bad idea, of course — when snakes feel threatened, they often bite.
Snake bites on cats may not be super common, but these emergencies require swift action to ensure your kitty has the best chance of survival and recovery. Here’s what you need to know to identify and treat snake bites on cats — or better yet, avoid them in the first place.
Snake bites on cats can come from either venomous or non-venomous snakes. Non-venomous snakes usually have a round head and pupils, while venomous snakes have pupils that resemble cat pupils. When venomous snakes bite, they release powerful and potentially deadly toxins into their victim’s body. Venomous snake bites on cats look like two large puncture wounds — what most people think of when they picture a snake bite.
The good news: Most snakes you’ll find in your backyard probably aren’t venomous, but their bites are still dangerous. Instead of telltale puncture wounds, non-venomous snake bites on cats leave smaller marks and more of a horseshoe-shaped impression.
Snake bites on cats might result in the following symptoms:
Though non-venomous snake bites on cats are far more common than venomous snake bites on cats, it’s still wise to respond to any incident involving cats and snake bites as though it could be venomous. Your kitty will require immediate veterinary attention. En route to the clinic, try to keep your cat as still as possible and, if needed, use a tourniquet to slow the cat’s circulation. Since snake bites on cats aren’t very common, consider calling your clinic ahead of time to ensure they’re prepared to treat this condition. If your regular clinic doesn’t have antivenin on hand, they can probably recommend an emergency clinic nearby.
Veterinarians often need pet parents’ help diagnosing snake bites on cats. Try to remember as many details as possible about the incident — where your cat was (i.e., walking through long grass, exploring the woods, hiding under the porch, etc.), what the snake looked like, and your cat’s behavior after the snake bite. Unfortunately, not all snakes bites on cats are visible, especially in long-haired cats, so you can also help your vet determine the location of the bite if you saw it take place. In some cases, a venom test kit can help identify the type of snake, and blood work and cultures may be performed to rule out infections or parasites.
“The number one thing is first we’d get a visual of the bites and do lab work,” says Luis Ferlo, a veterinary technician at Leawood Plaza Animal Hospital in Leawood, Kansas. “We’ll end up shaving the leg, keeping the area clean, and checking for swelling and infection.”
When appropriate, your vet may administer antivenin to counteract the neurological effects of snake bites on cats. If your cat has been bitten by a poisonous snake, hospitalization will likely be necessary to stabilize the kitty and provide supportive care, such as intravenous fluids, feeding tubes and oxygen.
With all types of snake bites on cats, additional treatment may be necessary to prevent infection. A cat may also require surgery depending on the location of the bite and the extent of the damage. According to Luis, if snake bites on cats damage the muscle, bone or tendons, treatment will be more extensive and require a longer recovery time.
“First we’ll probably treat it with some antibiotics,” Luis says. “If it’s something more severe and it’s hurt the bone or any muscle tissue, we’d have to cut it open and look at the damage.”
After receiving antivenin, a cat will require a few days to recover — though if treatment for venomous snake bites on cats is not immediate, the bites are often fatal. Whether your cat is recovering from a venomous or non-venomous snake bite, it’s best to monitor her condition closely and give all medications as directed by a veterinarian. In most cases, cats who are bitten by non-venomous snakes will recover if they receive timely and appropriate treatment.
“A cat bite can be worse than a snake bite,” Luis says. “It contains more bacteria. One snake bite I treated wasn’t as severe as we thought it would be, but the bite of the snake penetrated through the other side of the leg, so we had to make sure all the tendons were still attached and look for infection. Mostly cats do recover from [non-venomous] snake bites.
One way to help prevent snake bites on cats is to keep your grass mowed and clear your yard of places where snakes could hide, such as large piles of wood. But if your kitty gets the urge to roam, it can be difficult to prevent her from hunting or playing with a snake — though Luis says the way cats hunt can give them an advantage in this showdown.
“Cats don’t put their face first, they put their paw first, so the first thing that’s going to get bit is the paw,” he says. “They’ll tap the snake and walk away, so most of the bites will be in the leg.”
If your cat is determined to go outside, consider taking her for walks on a leash or letting her spend time on a screened-in catio. Above all, the best way to avoid snake bites on cats is simply to keep your kitty indoors.
Thumbnail: Photography © krblokhin | iStock / Getty Images Plus.
Angela Lutz is a writer and editor who has been fascinated by felines since childhood. She has more than a decade of experience writing about everything from health care and books to yoga and spicy food. She has written for Catster since 2012. Angela lives near Kansas City, Mo., with her husband, son and three cats.