Bites from animals, including pet cats and dogs, are common. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, animals bite millions of people each year. Most animal bites occur on the hand or finger.
Severe bites can be dangerous because of the unique structure of the hands. Your hands also receive less blood than other parts of your body. Because of this, your body may have a more difficult time fighting off infection that may develop from a bite.
Animal bites to the finger are typically not life-threatening. However, if the infection from a bite spreads throughout the body, it can cause serious medical problems.
Dogs cause most of the animal bites that occur in the United States. But most animals will bite if they feel threatened. Do not approach or touch animals you see in the wild.
Most animal bites to the finger won’t cause symptoms other than swelling, redness, or pain. If the bite doesn’t break the skin, your chances of developing serious health complications are low. Infection is more likely to happen when the injury breaks the skin.
Symptoms that may indicate infection include:
- swelling, redness, or pain that lasts more than 24 hours
- fluid (pus) that drains from the bite or 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.
Your doctor will examine the bite and ask you about the animal that bit you. Domesticated animals (i.e., pets) are less likely to give you rabies than wild animals. Your doctor may also ask you if you’ve had a tetanus shot in the past five years.
Your doctor may 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). Your doctor may order blood tests if they believe the 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 you develop an infection.
Bites That Don’t Break the Skin
If the bite is minor and doesn’t break the skin, wash the area with soap and water. Apply over-the-counter antibiotic cream to the bite area and cover with a bandage. Your risk of contracting infections or diseases from this type of animal bite is low.
Bites That Are Deep
Your doctor will clean the wound and stop the bleeding. They’ll also determine if surgery is required to fix any damage, or if you need stitches to close the wound.
Bites That Cause Infection
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the animal bite causes an infection. You may be able to take the medication at home. However, if your symptoms are serious, your doctor may keep you at the hospital and provide you with medication through an IV in your arm.
Bites That Cause Tetanus
Tetanus is a bacterial disease that affects your nervous system. It causes muscle contractions and breathing difficulties, and can be fatal.
Wounds that puncture the skin, such as those from an animal bite, make you more prone to the bacteria that cause tetanus. This bacteria is found in animal feces, soil, and dust — and likely to be found on the animal that has bitten you. This is why it’s important to receive a tetanus vaccine at least every 10 years. Children should be also be vaccinated.
Bites That Cause Rabies
If a wild animal or an animal that has a confirmed case of rabies bites you, your doctor will recommend treatment for rabies. If you have not previously been vaccinated against rabies, you’ll need to have four injections:
- on the day of your animal bite
- three days after exposure
- seven days after exposure
- 14 after exposure
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 can lead to death.
Your prognosis will depend on the severity of the animal bite. If the bite is minor, you’ll make a full recovery. If you develop an infection or have rabies, prompt treatment will improve your chances of a successful recovery.