Bites from animals, including pet cats and dogs, are common. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, animals bite millions of people in the United States each year. Most animal bites occur on the hand or finger.
Severe bites on your hands can be dangerous because of the unique structure. Your hands also receive less blood than other parts of your body. Because of this, you may have a more difficult time fighting off infection that may develop from a bite.
Animal bites to your finger are typically not life-threatening. However, if the infection from a bite spreads, 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. You shouldn’t approach or touch animals you see in the wild.
Most animal bites to your 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 your skin is broken.
Symptoms that may indicate infection include:
- swelling, redness, or pain that lasts more than 24 hours
- pus that drains from your bite or wound
- red streaks that run up your hand and arm
- tenderness or pain under your elbow or armpit due to swollen lymph nodes
- loss of mobility in your finger or hand
- fever or chills
- loss of sensation in your 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.
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
Rabies left untreated can lead to death.
Your doctor will examine the bite and ask you about the animal that bit you. A bite from a pet dog or any domesticated animal or pet is less likely to give you rabies than a bite from a wild animal.
Your doctor may also ask you if you’ve had a tetanus shot in the past five years.
Your doctor may order blood tests if they believe the infection has spread throughout your body.
If you experience an animal bite on your finger, the treatment you receive will depend on the presence of infection and the severity of the bite.
For example, a kitten biting fingers will typically be less damaging than a strong dog bite on the finger. But, a cat bite will usually have a greater risk of infection.
Bites that don’t break skin
If your bite is minor and doesn’t break 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
If you have this type of bite, you should see your doctor or seek emergency medical help. They’ll clean the wound and stop the bleeding. They’ll also determine if surgery is required or if you need stitches to fix any damage. Your doctor will also check for nerve damage.
Bites that cause infection
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the animal bite may cause an infection. You may be able to take the medication at home. However, if your symptoms are serious, your doctor may provide you with intravenous medication.
Bites that cause tetanus
Tetanus is a bacterial infection that affects your nervous system. It causes muscle contractions and breathing difficulties. It can be fatal.
Wounds that puncture your skin, such as those from an animal bite, make you more prone to tetanus. Tetanus bacteria is found in animal feces, soil, and dust — and likely to be found on the animal that’s bitten you.
Because the bacteria that causes tetanus is present in so many places, it’s important for you and your children to receive a tetanus vaccine at least every 10 years.
Bites that cause rabies
If a wild animal or an animal with a confirmed case of rabies bites you, your doctor will recommend treatment. If you haven’t 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 days after exposure
Your prognosis will depend on the severity of the animal bite. If your bite is minor, your chances for a full recovery are very high. If you develop an infection or have rabies, prompt treatment will improve your chances of a successful recovery.