Our neighbours bought a Rottweiler pup, Zara, a few months back. She was a nice girl, with a sweet nature. We talked through the gate every day, with me rubbing her chin and Zara having a good moan.

Our senior cats Target and Guido were disgusted by my fraternisation but Swooner was curious enough to come really close and sniff at the giant dog. I was hoping they’d be good friends as they grew up.

But we came home one night to find our neighbours distraught: Zara was dead.

It seemed totally unreal. She was alive and fine one moment, and gone the next. We couldn’t figure out what had happened. She was a gated dog, so not out on the street. She just died suddenly.

Zara was cremated. If we’d not been so shocked, we would have spoken to a vet. But as we hadn’t, we were concerned and baffled.

As there was some blood in her mouth, and her tongue seemed purplish and somewhat cut, we wondered if she might have been poisoned. There are plants, weed killers and all kinds of other dangers that can kill puppies, even big girls like Zara.

Most worryingly, with people being sometimes nasty, we wondered if some lunatic had hurt her on purpose.

While it’s hard to understand how someone could deliberately poison an animal, there’s no denying it happens. It may be thieves, removing guard dogs before they strike, criminals who want to intimidate or a sick cruelty that feeds off watching suffering.

None of those ideas seemed to fit. Nobody had been robbed or threatened and we hadn’t seen any suspicious strangers. An ugly idea, that it was an inside job, seemed absurd because our street is very animal-friendly. The eight dogs and 10 cats who live with other neighbours were fine. Even Zara’s canine sister, Tara, an elderly Pug, was also in good health.

However, as a wiser neighbour pointed out, we have a lot of living creatures so we should rule out foul play. He has CCTV and kindly checked all the footage from that day. The camera starts just before Zara’s garden. So we couldn’t see her, but we could see who had entered that part of the road.

The tapes were a bust. There was nothing unexpected; they showed just some of us residents going in and out.

Zara’s mum checked her compound and found no dangerous plants, fertilisers or chemicals. Zara was a nice girl who didn’t even chew shoes, so accidental death from swallowing glue or nails seemed unlikely.

I was leaning towards the snake theory. I may be paranoid, but a year or two ago we had one in our living room, another under our garden bench, and our neighbour had one in her sofa. And there was Dobi, our other neighbour’s dog who was killed by a cobra. However, we haven’t seen snakes in ages.

To get more information, I called a few local experts, asking: what are signs that suggest your pet may have been bitten by a snake?

“This will depend on the snake species that bit your dog,” said Dr Ahmad Khaldun Ismail. He is a Consultant Emergency Physician, senior lecturer and expert in toxinology – the study of venoms, poisons and toxins – at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

“For a non-venomous snake, your dog will be its normal self. But if the snake is equipped with venom that affects the nerve and muscle, such as from a cobra, your dog may have bite marks that are rather painful and swollen. The surrounding tissue/skin may turn bluish-black, indicating tissue breakdown or necrosis.

“If there is systemic envenoming, where the poison spreads beyond the bite and throughout the body, your dog may not be moving much and may have difficulty breathing. In severe cases, your dog may become paralysed and stop breathing. This may be fatal,” Dr Ahmad continued.

“With pit viper bites, the venom may cause the puncture wound to continue bleeding or oozing slowly. The area around the bite will become swollen and tender to the touch. Some of the pit viper venom may also cause local tissue damage, leading to blisters and necrosis similar to the ones caused by the cobras.

“In severe cases, where the pit viper venom enters the blood circulation, there will be problems with the blood not clotting properly. This can cause bleeding gums, as well as bleeding in the brain and muscles.”

Now Zara’s tongue was discoloured and there was some blood. But talking to four experts produced not one certain opinion. They said it was simply too difficult to tell without tests.

As we have no autopsy, it seems likely we’ll never know what happened to Zara. Better news is that all our other pets are fine, and we’ve seen no snakes. We’ve not had robberies, either.

We’ll have to chalk it up as a mystery. But it is awfully sad. I’ll miss Zara; she was a sweet girl.

Snakebites Need Special Handling

Azaleas, sago palm, oleander and other plants are poisonous to dogs. Your pet may also eat an insecticide compound, fertiliser or other chemical. Chewing planks covered in paint, or shoes with nails and glue, can also be dangerous. Finally, there are caterpillars, snakes and other beasties.

Whatever the issue is, if your pet starts bleeding, fainting, vomiting or showing other signs that something is wrong, speed is vital.

If you think you know what it was, and you’re certain it won’t hurt you, pick up the plant/bottle/bug and take it to the vet with your pet. Once you’re at the clinic, they will know what to do – or who to call, in case of unusual poisoning.

Snakebites need special handling.

“If you think your pet’s been bitten, you have to act quickly because some snakes have very strong venom,” explains Prof Dr Indraneil Das, herpetologist at Unimas, Sarawak.

“Go to a vet who understands how to handle snakebites, and who has the right stocks of anti-venom. While these experts are still quite rare, there are now a number of practices in Malaysia that can help dogs, horses, cows and other animals.”

Should your pet die, you can’t tell for sure what happened without an autopsy. This takes a specially trained vet and lab equipment.

“Preferably, we want to examine the whole carcass,” says Prof Mohd Zamri Saad, pathologist at UPM’s veterinary department. “If that is not possible, sending samples would be enough to suggest if the dog died of poisoning, or otherwise, so talk to your vet.”

During the autopsy, they look inside the body for certain signs, as well as test for chemicals and toxins.

“‘Traditional’ poisons like organo-phosphate or warfarin would cause severe haemorrhaging (bleeding) in various organs, especially the lungs,” Prof Zamri notes, “unlike a snakebite, that is more neurotoxic in nature and seldom causes haemorrhages.”

If you don’t have an autopsy but suspect snakebite and are worried about your family, know that snakes in urban areas live in drains and feed off rats.

“The best way to keep snakes away is to take away their food source,” Prof Dr Indraneil says. “Deal properly with your garbage so that you don’t have rats – and then the snakes will move on.”