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Animal bites

Definition

An animal bite can result in a break or tear in the skin, a bruise, or a puncture wound.

Alternative Names

Bites - animals

Considerations

Bites that result in puncture wounds are more likely to become infected. You might have a puncture wound if an animal's tooth went through your skin during the bite.

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

  • A weakened immune system due to medicines or disease
  • Diabetes
  • Peripheral artery disease

Some animals are infected with a virus that can cause rabies. Bats may spread this disease. Rabies is rare but can be deadly. If you get a rabies shot very soon after you are bitten, you can develop immunity to the disease and not get sick. For more information on this disease, see:  Rabies.

Antibiotics are used to treat many animal bites, especially:

  • If it involved your hands or fingers
  • If a cat or monkey bit you

You may need antibiotics even if you did not need stitches or a rabies shot.

Causes

Pets are the most common cause of bites.

  • Dog bites are most common.
  • Cat bites are less common, but have a higher risk of infection. Cat teeth are longer and sharper, which can cause deeper puncture wounds.
  • Stray animals and wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons, and bats, also bite thousands of people each year.

If you are bitten by a wild animal or an unknown pet, try to keep it in view while you notify animal control authorities for help in capturing it. They will determine if the animal needs to be impounded and checked for rabies. Any animal whose rabies vaccination status is unknown should be captured and quarantined.

Symptoms

Possible symptoms include:

  • Break or major cuts in the skin with or without bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Crushing injuries
  • Puncture-type wound

Certain diseases can also be spread through bites from various animals. These diseases may cause flu-like symptoms, headache, and fever.

First Aid

  1. Calm and reassure the person. Wear latex gloves or wash your hands thoroughly before attending to the wound. Wash hands afterwards, too.
  2. If the bite is not bleeding severely, wash the wound thoroughly with mild soap and running water for 3 to 5 minutes. Then, cover the bite with antibiotic ointment and a clean dressing.
  3. If the bite is actively bleeding, apply direct pressure with a clean, dry cloth until the bleeding stops. Raise the area of the bite.
  4. If the bite is on the hand or fingers, call the doctor right away.
  5. Over the next 24 to 48 hours, watch the area of the bite for signs of infection (increasing skin redness, swelling, and pain).
  6. If the bite becomes infected, call the doctor or take the person to an emergency medical center.

Do Not

Do NOT go near an animal that may have rabies or is acting strangely or aggressively. Do NOT try to catch it yourself.

If an animal's behavior is strange, it may be rabid. Notify the proper authorities. The police can always direct you to the proper animal control authorities. Tell them what the animal looks like and where it is so they can capture it.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

Call 911 if the person has been seriously wounded -- for example, if the person is bleeding significantly and it will not stop with simple first aid measures.

Call your doctor or go to a hospital emergency room if:

  • The person was bitten by an unknown or wild animal.
  • The person has not had a tetanus shot within the past 5 years. (If a person has not had a tetanus shot in 5 years, a tetanus shot is recommended within 24 hours of any skin break.)
  • There is swelling, redness, pus draining from the wound, or pain.
  • The bite is on the face, neck, or hands.
  • The bite is deep or large.
  • You aren't sure if the wound needs stitches.

Report the bite to the local animal control authorities, even if you don't seek professional medical care. This will allow authorities to test the animal and prevent further incidents.

Prevention

  • Teach children not to approach strange animals.
  • Do NOT provoke or tease animals.

References

BradfordJE, Freer L. Bites and injuries inflicted by wild and domestic animals.In: Auerbach PS, ed.Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 56.

Weber EJ, West HH. Mammalian bites. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds.Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 58.


Review Date: 1/8/2012
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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