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Dogs are among the most popular animal companions. In fact, it’s estimated that dogs live in about 38 percent of households in the United States.

Still, as with having any other pet, it’s important to be aware of the variety of diseases and health risks that may be transmitted from your canine companion. Some of these health risks may be derived from dog scratches that arise from playing, feeding, and coming into contact with an unknown animal.

Not all dog scratches are serious, but it’s important to be on the lookout for possible signs of infection, and call a doctor to rule out more serious health consequences.

Read on to learn about possible health risks from dog scratches and how to treat and prevent them.

Daily interactions with your dog — including playtime — can sometimes result in scratches. These might occur from your dog’s nails when they step on you or jump up on you, as well as accidentally scratching you with their teeth while playing fetch or during feedings.

When you get scratched by a dog, you may notice red marks on your skin. These may temporarily become painful and swollen and, in more severe cases, lead to more serious health risks. Possibilities may include:

  • excessive bleeding
  • infections, such as Capnocytophaga bacteria
  • tetanus, which is caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria
  • rabies, a serious viral infection
  • sepsis, a life-threatening emergency caused by the spread of an infection to vital organs

Any dog scratch — including those that seem mild and harmless — ought to be treated immediately to prevent infection and other health complications. Consider the following steps:

  1. First, wash (but don’t scrub) the dog scratch wound with warm water and soap. Rinse for at least 5 minutes. Pat dry with a clean towel.
  2. If the dog scratch is bleeding, apply pressure to the area with a clean gauze pad.
  3. Apply an over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic cream or ointment.
  4. Cover the wound with a sterile bandage.

Signs of an infection from a scratch wound

While your dog scratch wound heals, look for the following possible signs of an infection:

  • increased redness and swelling
  • red streaks near the wound that aren’t scratches
  • fever
  • pus from the wound
  • weakness and fatigue

See a doctor if you notice any signs of infection from a dog scratch.

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Some dogs carry a bacteria in their mouths called Capnocytophaga. While these bacteria rarely spread to people, there’s still a chance of getting sick from exposure to an animal’s saliva, especially if you have a weakened immune system.

Capnocytophaga infections can progress quickly, even becoming life-threatening. Possible symptoms related to this type of infection include:

  • swelling
  • redness and blisters
  • pus from the bite
  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle or joint aches
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting

Call or visit a doctor if you’re experiencing any signs of infection post-dog scratch. It’s also a good idea to seek medical attention any time you’ve been scratched by a dog — especially if the dog isn’t your own.

In the case of a dog bite, you should seek medical care to rule out the risk of rabies and other potentially life-threatening diseases.

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Rabies is a type of viral infection that can occur when bitten by an animal that’s infected. This is a serious infection that can be fatal in both animals and humans, due to the virus’s attack on the nervous system.

While animal-to-animal transmission is possible, it’s not as common for humans to be infected by household pets in the United States. Part of this reduced risk is attributed to rabies vaccines in domesticated animals.

Still, rabies ought to be considered in the case of a serious wound from a dog, particularly if it’s a stray dog or one who hasn’t been vaccinated against rabies. The virus may be transmitted through an infected dog’s saliva from biting or accidental scratching.

How a dog with rabies may behave

A dog who is infected with rabies may have the following symptoms:

  • behavioral changes
  • reduced appetite
  • voice changes/changes to their barks
  • panting
  • anxiety and restlessness
  • attempted attacks on people and other animals
  • paralysis

What to do if you suspect you’ve been bitted by a dog with rabies

If you’ve been bitten or scratched by a dog with an unknown rabies vaccination status, call a doctor. They may recommend treatment with rabies vaccines as well as antibodies.

Humans (with the exception of veterinarians and other professionals who handle animals) don’t typically get the rabies vaccine unless they’ve been exposed to the virus from an infected animal.

Symptoms of a rabies infection

Symptoms of rabies are slow to develop, taking several weeks or months. Waiting to seek treatment until you’re symptomatic may have life-threatening consequences.

Possible signs of rabies in humans may include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • headache
  • weakness
  • anxiety
  • hallucinations, and other neurological changes

While it’s not always possible to avoid all cases of dog scratches, you may help minimize your risk of getting sick by:

  • washing your hands after playing with and feeding your dog
  • carefully washing scratches that do occur
  • bandaging dog scratches and any subsequent open wounds
  • keeping your dog up-to-date on their vaccines
  • avoiding contact with other dogs that may be feral or unvaccinated
  • walking your dog on a leash to prevent exposure to wild animals
  • asking your doctor if you’re up to date on your vaccines

Also, if you have your own dog, you may help reduce the risk of scratches from toenails and bites by training your dog not to jump up on you, and to use their mouths softly during playtime and feedings.

Getting scratched by your dog can happen, especially during feeding and playtime. While you can train your dog to be more gentle, occasional scratches are still inevitable. Your risk may also be greater when coming into contact with a wild dog, or a domesticated one who’s not your own.

Washing a dog scratch wound is critical in preventing infections. Depending on the severity of the wound, you may consider calling your doctor regarding next steps.

Seek medical care if you’re injured by a dog who isn’t yours, if you’ve been bitten, are bleeding excessively, or are experiencing flu-like symptoms.