One of the many interesting topics that snake expert Johan Marais deals with in his talks and presentations is animals and snakebite. There are many myths and superstitions. Here he busts a few of them.
One of the most popular snake myths is the story of the black mamba killing five or more cattle in a kraal within minutes. Several people on my courses have claimed to have witnessed such incidents.
Snakes often bite animals, especially dogs. Cats are far more intelligent than dogs and are highly efficient at killing small snakes, often bringing half dead snakes into the house. They seldom get bitten.
Sheep, cattle and horses suffer snake bites, especially from puff adders, when the inquisitive animal sticks its nose too close for the snake’s comfort. While I have no doubt that many snakes have the ability to kill horses and adult cattle, it appears that the vast majority of these deaths cannot be attributed to snakebite.
Unless an autopsy is done, it is very difficult to establish the cause of an animal’s death. So-called fang punctures are not a good indication of snakebite, but if an animal has a massively swollen head, the chances that it has been bitten by a puff adder are pretty good.
I spoke to Dr Andrew Leisewitz of Onderstepoort, who has a particular interest in snakebite on animals. He often sees snakebite deaths in dogs and sheep but has not seen a snakebite death among horses and cattle in many years.
Most of the bites are from puff adders and often result in massive swelling and necrosis (death of tissue). Animals respond well to anti-venom treatment and seldom suffer allergic reactions.
Dogs also respond well to anti-venom treatment, especially if it’s administered soon after the bite. But this is an expensive exercise, with anti-venom serum costing close on R900 a vial (10ml). Several vials may be required in some cases.
People often boast about their smart “snake killer” dogs. Some dogs are quite good at killing snakes such as the Cape cobra and rinkhals, but the puff adder is another story. It is one of the fastest striking snakes in Africa. So if your dog kills a lot of snakes, save up for another dog – it may just be a matter of time.
I also got some feedback from Prof Joseph van Heerden, one of the best veterinarians in Africa. Here is his response in an e-mail to Andrew Leisewitz about snakebite on animals:
“We see lots of snakebite cases, the majority by far in dogs and most of them puff adder bites. There are far less cobra bites, and last year for the first time there were four boomslang cases. Three were given the specific anti-serum and survived. The remaining one died, because the owners could not afford treatment.
“We also see horses being bitten by puff adders regularly and it is not unusual to get clusters of cases, such as six inquisitive yearlings being bitten by the same puff adder.
“We treat all equine cases with anti-serum and just about all the horses survive, despite the fact that they usually develop a severe swelling of the head.
“Over a period of 18 years, and having seen probably more than 250 equine cases, we lost one adult horse and a less than six-month-old foal that died after we had battled with it all day. And that was probably the only foal that we have ever treated.
“We’ve never had a cobra case in equines. We have never been asked to attend to a bovine, sheep or goat suffering from snakebite, but on occasion farmers have reported snakebite cases in bovines.
“Only I suspected a puff adder bite case in a cat that was presented with extensive skin necrosis. It took a long time, but it completely recovered.
“I treated a puff adder bite case in a buffalo cow and in a young sable heifer. Gave anti-serum and both made uneventful recoveries. These were free ranging animals and the snakes were not seen, but the swellings were typical: fairly acute onset; massive swelling. Both animals were depressed and appeared uncomfortable.
“I have never encountered or diagnosed a cobra bite in a large animal. I cannot see why they should be immune to the toxins but they would probably need high dosages.”
We have managed to pull through a small number of dogs bitten by cobras over the years, especially if they were merely scratched by the snake and if we could manage to administer oxygen. However, most victims die en route to the surgery or shortly after admission.
On a number of occasions, owners have presented the wrong dog for treatment, only to find the dog that was bitten lying dead next to the snake when they return home.
I am receiving more and more case histories of snakebites among animals and hope to be in a position to share more information in the near future. But for now I still remain sceptical about the five head of cattle being killed by a black mamba.
To assist with the possible identification of snakes and to save animals, the Atlas and Red List of Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland was launched on 16 April. It will be of great help to anyone wanting to know more about snakes and snakebite.
It is a phenomenal publication with contributions from seven editors, 28 authors and several photographers. It includes species accounts of more than 400 reptiles with up-to-date distribution maps, colour photographs and a conservation assessment for every reptile.
I would like to congratulate and thank Dr Michael Bates of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, who put in many hours over many years to ensure that the end product is without doubt one of the most important herpetological works ever produced in Africa. The hard cover copies will be sold out within weeks, but a CD with a PDF version is also available. Anyone interested should e-mail me.
The first batch of Dangerous Snakes posters has now been completed and will be available as free downloads on my website shortly. These posters can also be ordered in printed form (A3) at R25 each, including local postage and packaging. The series includes posters for most parts of the country as well as Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Mozambique. Most are available in Afrikaans and English and we are working on German, Portuguese and Zulu versions.
Another poster that will be available soon is Common Harmless Snakes of Southern Africa. After that I will be tackling the 55-odd African countries.
My sincere thanks to Joleen Coetzee, who has done an amazing job with the design of these posters.