An animal bite is a wound caused by the teeth of an animal. The teeth puncture, tear, scratch, bruise, or crush the tissue. The injury can damage skin, nerves, bone, muscle, blood vessels, or joints.
Most bites occur when an animal has been provoked. Animals with rabies may bite without being provoked.
Most bites occur in children and young adults. Males are affected more often than females. Bites happen more frequently in warmer weather.
Symptoms of a bite include pain and bleeding.
Wounds may become infected because of the bacteria normally found in the animal's mouth or a systemic infection of the animal such as rabies. Wounds may also become infected from bacteria on the skin or in the environment.
Symptoms of infection include:
- Redness around the wound
- Pus oozing from the wound
The doctor will ask about how the bite occurred, the animal that bit you, and your medical history. The doctor will examine the wound and assess damage to any nearby muscles, tendons, nerves, or bones. If the wound appears infected, the doctor may use a sterile swab to remove a sample for testing.
Other tests may include:
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The goal of treatment is to promote healing, decrease the risk of infection, and prevent complications. If your dog bit you and it has had all its vaccinations, you may be able to treat a minor wound yourself. However, call your provider for medical advice. Receiving medical care within the first 24 hours decreases the chance of infection.
Seek medical care in these situations:
- Bite from any wild animal, such as raccoons, skunks, or bats, which may carry rabies
- Cat or human bites (these are particularly prone to developing rapid and serious infection)
- Deep or large wound
- Five or more years since your last tetanus shot
Regardless of the severity of the bite, see a doctor if you have any of the following:
- Absence of spleen (spleen has been removed)
- Liver disease
- Heart or lung disease
- Arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus
- Poor circulation
- Immune system deficiency
- Wash the wound with soap and water for at least 5 minutes.
- Apply pressure with a clean towel to stop the bleeding.
- If bleeding does not stop within 15 minutes, seek immediate medical care.
- Place a sterile bandage on the open area.
- Elevate the wound, keeping the area above the level of your heart to decrease swelling.
- Keep the bandage clean and dry.
- Check the wound regularly for signs of infection.
Your doctor can clean the wound, washing the tissue with large amounts of fluid. Debris and dead tissue can be removed. The wound may or may not be closed with stitches. It often is kept open to decrease the risk of infection. After 24 hours, the doctor may use adhesive strips to bring the edges of the wound closer together. Antibiotics may be ordered and a tetanus shot may be given.
Be sure to tell your doctor as much as you can about the animal that bit you and the circumstances surrounding the incident. If the identity of the animal is unknown and it cannot be monitored for rabies, you may need to receive treatment to prevent this life-threatening disease.
Be aware that most animal bites are from dogs. Dog owners are most likely to be bitten by their own dog. To help reduce your chances of an animal bite:
- Do not try to touch or restrain your own dog when it is injured or fighting with another dog.
- Never approach a dog or another animal that you are unfamiliar with. Do not pet or play with sick or strange animals.
- Do not run past a dog.
- If a dog approaches you, stay calm and let it sniff you. Do not make eye contact. Wait until the dog leaves or slowly backs away. If you are knocked to the ground, roll into a ball and protect your head and neck with your hands.
- Be alert to signs like ear position or bared teeth. These are signs that a dog may bite.
- Carefully select pets. People with children should look for animals with easy-going temperaments.
- Socialize and train your pet.
- Supervise children's interactions with animals. Teach children to respect animals and not put their faces close to a pet. Do not allow teasing or tail pulling.
- Do not wrestle with or promote aggression in your dog.
- Do not bother an animal that is eating, sleeping, or caring for pups.
AVMA—American Veterinary Medical Association
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Cat and dog bites. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/cat-and-dog-bites. Updated April 2017. Accessed December 5, 2017.
Mammalian bite. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116837/Mammalian-bite. Updated October 27, 2017. Accessed December 5, 2017.
Wunner WH, Briggs DJ. Rabies in the 21st century. PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2010;4(3):e591.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 12/20/2014