Animal Bite

Written by Bree Normandin and Winnie Yu | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Getting bitten by an animal can happen to anyone. You may be hiking or camping, and come across a wild animal that bites you to protect itself. Or maybe a neighbor’s dog bites you accidentally during a friendly game of catch.

Many types of animals can inflict bites on adults and children. Most animal bites are by the family pet, but the following animals can bite, too:

  • hamsters
  • raccoons
  • ferrets
  • squirrels

Why Do Animals Bite?

Animal bites can result when an animal is provoked. Provoked bites may occur when someone tries to remove food while a dog is eating. They can also happen if you tease the family pet. However, in many cases animal bites are unprovoked. Unprovoked bites can occur in your own backyard. Sometimes a raccoon or squirrel may attack for no obvious reason. Usually when this occurs, the attacking animal is seriously ill.

What Are the Symptoms of an Animal Bite?

Bites should be examined by your physician. Immediate medical attention may not always be possible, but it should be pursued soon after the bite. Once a bite has occurred, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs or symptoms of infection. The following signs and symptoms may indicate infection, or that there is debris in your wound:

  • localized redness around the wound
  • warmth around the bite area
  • red streaks leading away from the bite
  • fever
  • pus
  • swelling
  • pain

Why is Medical Care Critical?

If you’ve been bitten, you should be seen immediately by a physician for several reasons:

  • risk of infection
  • broken teeth embedded in the wound
  • foreign objects embedded in the wound
  • possible nerve and blood vessel damage

The following types of bites pose the greatest risk of infection and should be promptly evaluated:

  • dog bites
  • cat bites
  • wild animal bites

How Are Animal Bite Diagnosed and Treated?

The physician will assess your risk of infection, check for additional injuries, and attempt to minimize scarring. Examinations following an animal bite usually involve the following:

Inspection

Wounds are thoroughly examined for debris. The wound may be treated with a numbing agent in order for the doctor to look over your wound.

X-Rays

Your doctor could order X-rays to check for bone fractures. An X-ray ensures there is no debris in the wound that isn’t visible upon inspection. Certain types of foreign material such as dirt or grass are easy to overlook.

Irrigation

Your doctor will irrigate the wound to clean it properly. This is important to prevent infection. Irrigation may not always prevent infection, but it does reduce the risk. A local anesthetic may be used to minimize pain.

Debridement

Animal bites can result in skin tears that cannot be repaired. Debridement may be necessary to remove dead skin and tissue that can’t be repaired. Debridement is usually painful. It may require a local anesthetic.

Closure

Puncture wounds aren’t usually closed with stitches. But some wounds must be sutured immediately after the bite.

Your doctor may recommend different methods of wound care, based on the injury you sustained. Wounds that have been sutured should be kept clean and dry. Showering is permitted, but the injury should be dried softly to avoid damaging the sutures. Wounds that are not sutured may require daily soaking or other treatments.

 

Antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent infection resulting from an animal bite. The following types of bites usually warrant antibiotics:

  • cat bites
  • wounds that require debriding
  • heavily contaminated wounds

Antibiotics are usually prescribed for individuals who are elderly or who have chronic medical conditions.

Most bite wounds can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If your bite is severe, a stronger pain medication might be prescribed for short-term pain relief.

What Is The Long-Term Outlook?

Most animal bites heal quickly. There usually aren’t serious complications unless the bite was extremely severe.

How Do I Prevent Animal Bites?

Lowering the risk of being bitten by an animal is fairly easy. You can do this by using common sense and remembering the following:

  • Avoid contact with unknown animals.
  • Never feed or attempt to catch wild animals like squirrels, raccoons, or rats.
  • Avoid disturbing animals with babies.
  • Never engage in aggressive playing. A family dog can accidentally bite you during a friendly game of tug of war.
  • Never stick fingers into animal cages.

Unless the bite is completely unprovoked or the animal is sick, most bites can be easily prevented.

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