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Animal bites - self-care

Bites - animals - self-care

An animal bite can break, puncture, or tear the skin. Animal bites that break the skin put you at risk for infections.

Causes

Most animal bites come from pets. Dog bites are common and most often happen to children. Compared with adults, children are much more likely to be bitten on the face, head, or neck.

Cat bites are less common but have a higher risk for infection. Cat teeth are longer and sharper, which can cause deeper puncture wounds. Most other animal bites are caused by stray or wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats.

Bites that cause a puncture wound are more likely to become infected. Some animals are infected with a virus that can cause rabies. Rabies is rare but can be deadly.

Symptoms

Possible symptoms include:

  • Breaks or major cuts in the skin, with or without bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Crushing injuries that can cause severe tissue tears
  • Puncture wounds
  • Tendon or joint injury

Wound Care

Because of the risk for infection, you should see a health care provider within 24 hours for any bite that breaks the skin. If you are caring for someone who was bitten:

  • Calm and reassure the person.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before treating the wound.
  • If the wound is bleeding, put on latex gloves if you have them.
  • Wash your hands again afterward.

To care for the wound:

  • Stop the wound from bleeding by applying direct pressure with a clean, dry cloth.
  • Wash the wound. Use mild soap and warm, running water. Rinse the bite for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Apply an antibacterial ointment to the wound. This may help reduce the risk for infection.
  • Put on a sterile bandage.
  • If the bite is on the neck, head, face, hand, fingers, or feet, call your provider right away.

For deeper wounds, you may need stitches. The provider may give you a tetanus shot if you have not had one in the last 5 years. You may also need to take antibiotics. If the infection has spread, you may receive antibiotics through a vein (IV).

When to Call Animal Control

You should call animal control or your local police if you are bitten by:

  • An animal that behaves in an odd way
  • An unknown pet or a pet that has not had a rabies vaccination
  • A stray or wild animal

Tell them what the animal looks like and where it is. They will decide whether the animal needs to be captured and isolated.

Possible Complications

An animal bite is more likely to become infected in people who have:

  • Weakened immune systems due to medicines or disease
  • Diabetes
  • Peripheral arterial disease (arteriosclerosis, or poor circulation)

Getting a rabies shot right after you are bitten can protect you from the disease.

How to Prevent Animal Bites

To prevent animal bites:

  • Teach children not to approach strange animals.
  • DO NOT provoke or tease animals.
  • DO NOT go near an animal that is acting strangely or aggressively. It may have rabies. DO NOT try to catch the animal yourself.

When to Call the Doctor

Wild animals and unknown pets could be carrying rabies. If you have been bitten by a wild or stray animal, contact your provider right away. See your provider within 24 hours for any bite that breaks the skin.

Call your provider or go to the emergency room if:

  • There is swelling, redness, or pus draining from the wound.
  • The bite is on the head, face, neck, hands, or feet.
  • The bite is deep or large.
  • You see exposed muscle or bone.
  • You are not sure if the wound needs stitches.
  • The bleeding does not stop after a few minutes. For serious bleeding, call your local emergency number, such as 911.
  • You have not had a tetanus shot in 5 years.

References

Eilbert WP. Mammalian bites. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 54.

Goldstein EJC, Abrahamian FM. Bites. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 320.

  • Animal bite

    Animal bite - illustration

    An animal bite may not appear to be life-threatening, but if left untreated the bite can lead to a serious infection. An animal bite should be cleaned properly, and the wound should be observed for any sign of infection.

    Animal bite

    illustration

  • Animal bites

    Animal bites - illustration

    Animal bites are injuries that result when flesh is torn between the teeth of an animal. First aid for a bite includes washing minor wounds, applying pressure and dressing with a clean cloth until bleeding subsides. If the animal is wild or domestic but not vaccinated there may be a concern about rabies. When possible the animal must be quarantined or autopsied to determine if it is rabid. A physician will make the decision about rabies prophylaxis.

    Animal bites

    illustration

  • Animal bite

    Animal bite

    Presentation

    • Animal bite

      Animal bite - illustration

      An animal bite may not appear to be life-threatening, but if left untreated the bite can lead to a serious infection. An animal bite should be cleaned properly, and the wound should be observed for any sign of infection.

      Animal bite

      illustration

    • Animal bites

      Animal bites - illustration

      Animal bites are injuries that result when flesh is torn between the teeth of an animal. First aid for a bite includes washing minor wounds, applying pressure and dressing with a clean cloth until bleeding subsides. If the animal is wild or domestic but not vaccinated there may be a concern about rabies. When possible the animal must be quarantined or autopsied to determine if it is rabid. A physician will make the decision about rabies prophylaxis.

      Animal bites

      illustration

    • Animal bite

      Presentation

    A Closer Look

     

    Self Care

     
     

    Review Date: 4/7/2018

    Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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