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Animal Bites

Definition

An animal bite is a wound caused by the teeth of an animal. The injury can damage skin, nerves, bone, muscle, blood vessels, or joints.

Causes

Most bites occur when an animal has been bothered. Animals with rabies may bite without being bothered.

Risk Factors

Animal bites are more common in males and people less than 20 years of age. Dog bites are more common in boys from 5 to 9 years old. Cat bites are more common in females of all ages.

Symptoms

Symptoms can range from a mild wound to a serious infection. Symptoms of wounds are pain and bleeding.

Signs of infection often happen 24 to 72 hours after the bite. They may be:

  • Pain or tenderness
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Pus or clear discharge from the wound
  • Painless lumps near the site
  • Problems moving the affected area
  • Fever

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about the bite, the animal that bit you, and your health history. The doctor will check the wound. If the wound looks infected, the doctor may swab it for testing.

X-rays may be done to look for broken bones.

Dog Bite to Hand
Dog Bite

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Treatment

The goal of treatment is to promote healing, reduce the risk of infection, and prevent problems. The risk of infection and problems is lowered by getting prompt medical care. Medical care is especially important for:

  • Bites from any wild animal, which may carry rabies
  • Cat or human bites
  • Deep or large wounds
  • Infection
  • Those who have not had a tetanus shot in 5 or more years
  • Those with long term or serious illnesses

Treatment options are:

  • Home care, such as:
    • Keeping the wound clean, dry, and bandaged
    • Elevating the wound—to speed healing
    • Checking the wound often for signs of infection
  • Medical care, such as:
    • Cleaning the wound and removing any dead tissue
    • Stitching the wound, if needed
    • Bandaging the wound
    • Antibiotics to prevent or treat infection
    • A tetanus shot, if needed
    • Surgery—for severe injury

Hospital care may be needed for those with severe wounds or infections, or certain health problems.

Prevention

The risk of animal bites may be reduced by learning and practicing animal safety.

RESOURCES:

AVMA—American Veterinary Medical Association
https://www.avma.org

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
https://familydoctor.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Bula-Rudas FJ, Olcott JL. Human and animal bites. Pediatr Rev. 2018;39(10):490-500.

Cat and dog bites. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/cat-and-dog-bites. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Mammalian bite. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/mammalian-bite . Accessed March 30, 2021.

Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 3/30/2021