Bites from animals, including cats and dogs, are a common occurrence. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, millions of people each year are bitten by animals (AAOS, 2009).
Most animal bites occur on the hand or finger. These bites can be especially dangerous because of the unique structure of the hands. In addition, hands receive less blood circulation than other parts of the body. If an infection develops as a result of an animal bite to the finger, it may be more difficult for the body to fight this infection.
Animal bites to the finger are typically not life-threatening. However, the spread of an infection from an animal bite throughout the body can cause serious medical problems.
Dogs cause most of the animal bites that occur in the United States. Other animals that may bite you include:
Although bites from these animals are not as common, these animals will bite if they feel threatened. If you see an animal in the wild, do not approach the creature or attempt to touch it.
Most animal bites to the finger will not cause any symptoms other than swelling, redness, or pain. If the skin is not broken by the bite, your chances of developing serious health complications are quite low. In cases where the skin has been broken, a number of symptoms may occur.
These symptoms may indicate infection and can include:
- swelling, redness, or pain that lasts more than 24 hours
- fluid (pus) that drains from the bite wound
- red streaks that run up the hand and arm
- tenderness or pain under the elbow or armpit due to swollen lymph nodes
- loss of mobility in the finger or hand
- fever or chills
- loss of sensation in the fingertip
Seek emergency medical attention if you develop any of these symptoms following an animal bite. Call your doctor for an appointment or go to your local emergency room.
An animal bite of the finger will be diagnosed by your doctor. Your doctor will examine the bite and ask you about the animal that bit you. He or she may want to know if the animal had been given a rabies vaccine and what caused the bite to occur. Your doctor may also want to know whether you have had a tetanus shot in the past five years.
Tetanus is a bacterial disease that affects your nervous system, causing muscle contractions and breathing difficulties. It can be fatal. Wounds that puncture the skin, such as those from an animal bite, make an individual more prone to the bacteria that cause tetanus.
This bacteria is found in animal feces, soil, and dust—all likely to be found on the animal that has bitten you. This is why it is important to receive a tetanus vaccine at least every 10 years; children should be also be vaccinated (Mayo, 2010).
Your doctor may also X-ray your hand to see if a bone has been broken. If you have an infection, your doctor may also order an X-ray to see if you have osteomyelitis (an infection of the bone). Blood tests may also be ordered if your doctor believes your infection has spread throughout your body (sepsis). Osteomyelitis and sepsis can be fatal.
If you experience an animal bite of the finger, the treatment you receive will depend on the severity of the bite and whether or not you develop an infection.
Bites That Do Not Break the Skin
If your bite is minor and does not break the skin, the area may be washed with soap and water. Over-the-counter antibiotic creams may be applied and the area covered with a bandage. Your risk of contracting rabies from this type of animal bite is low.
Bites That Are Deep
Bites that are deep may require surgical repair. In the emergency room, your doctor will clean the wound and stop the bleeding. Stitches may also be required to close the wound.
Bites That Cause Infection
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if your animal bite causes an infection. You may be able to take your medication at home. However, if your symptoms are serious, your doctor may keep you at the hospital and provide you with intravenous medication through a vein in your arm.
Bites That Cause Rabies
If you are bitten by a wild animal or an animal that has a confirmed case of rabies, your doctor may recommend treatment for rabies. If you have not previously been vaccinated against rabies, you will need to have four injections: on the day of your animal bite and on days three, seven, and 14 after your exposure to rabies.
A bite from an animal with rabies is an especially serious situation. Wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are common carriers of this serious and commonly fatal virus. Household pets can also become carriers if not regularly vaccinated.
A bite from an animal with rabies can cause the initial symptoms of fever, headache, and muscle weakness. As the disease progresses, rabies symptoms may include:
- mood agitation
- an increase in saliva
- difficulty swallowing
- fear of water (hydrophobia)
Rabies left untreated almost certainly leads to death.
Your prognosis will depend on the severity of your animal bite. If the bite is minor, you will make a full recovery. If you develop an infection or have rabies, prompt treatment will improve your chances of a successful recovery.