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Animal and Human Bites
Animal and human bites may cause puncture wounds, cuts, scrapes, or crushing injuries. Most animal and human bites cause minor injuries, and home treatment is usually all that is needed to care for the wound.
Most animal bites occur in school-age children. The face, hands, arms, and legs are the most common sites for animal bites. Since most bites occur in children, be sure to teach children to be careful around animals and that an animal could hurt them. Young children should always be supervised around animals.
Dog bites occur more than any other animal bite and are most frequent in the summer months. The dog is usually known to the person, and most injuries result from the dog being teased or bothered while eating or sleeping. Boys are bitten about twice as often as girls. The arms, head, and neck are the most likely areas to be bitten in children.
Cat bites usually cause deeper puncture wounds than dog bites and have a high risk of bacterial infection because they can be hard to clean adequately.
Exotic pet bites, such as from rats, mice, or gerbils, may carry illnesses, but rabies is not usually a concern. The bites from some pets, such as iguanas, are at risk for infection but do not carry other serious risks.
Livestock, such as horses, cows, and sheep, have powerful jaws and can cause crushing bite injuries. Infection, tetanus, and rabies are possible risks.
Wild animal bites may occur while hunting, camping, or hiking. Infection, tetanus, and rabies are possible risks.
Adult bites that cause a wound to the hand can be serious. A clenched fist striking another person in the mouth and teeth can cut or puncture the skin over the knuckles. This is commonly called a “fight bite.” Underlying tissues may be damaged, and an infection can develop.
Bites from children are:
- Usually not very deep.
- Not as forceful as adult bites.
- Not too likely to become infected.
- Not damaging to underlying tissue.
What to do if you get a bite?
When you have a bite:
- Stop the bleeding by applying direct pressure.
- Determine if other tissues, such as blood vessels, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, or internal organs, have been injured.
- Determine if treatment by a doctor is needed.
- Clean the wound to prevent bacterial infections, tetanus (“lockjaw”), and viral infections, such as herpes simplex virus and cytomegalovirus (CMV).
- Determine the risk for rabies and the need for treatment to prevent the disease.
- Determine if you need a tetanus shot.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as “male” and once as “female”). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Symptoms of infection may include:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
- Red streaks leading from the area.
- Pus draining from the area.
- A fever.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can’t stand it for more than a few hours, can’t sleep, and can’t do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it’s severe when it’s there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
With severe bleeding, any of these may be true:
- Blood is pumping from the wound.
- The bleeding does not stop or slow down with pressure.
- Blood is quickly soaking through bandage after bandage.
With moderate bleeding, any of these may be true:
- The bleeding slows or stops with pressure but starts again if you remove the pressure.
- The blood may soak through a few bandages, but it is not fast or out of control.
With mild bleeding, any of these may be true:
- The bleeding stops on its own or with pressure.
- The bleeding stops or slows to an ooze or trickle after 15 minutes of pressure. It may ooze or trickle for up to 45 minutes.
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
- You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
- It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).
You may need a tetanus shot depending on how dirty the wound is and how long it has been since your last shot.
- For a dirty wound that has things like dirt, saliva, or feces in it, you may need a shot if:
- You haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years.
- You don’t know when your last shot was.
- For a clean wound, you may need a shot if:
- You have not had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years.
- You don’t know when your last shot was.
Rabies may be a concern after an animal bite if:
- The animal that bit you was acting strangely or foaming at the mouth.
- The animal attacked you for no clear reason.
- The animal cannot be watched for signs of rabies.
- You were bitten while you were in a foreign country or in the wilderness.
To clean a wound well:
- Wash your hands first.
- Remove large pieces of dirt or debris from the wound with cleaned tweezers. Do not push the tweezers deeply into the wound.
- Hold the wound under cool running water. If you have a sprayer in your sink, you can use it to help remove dirt and other debris from the wound.
- Scrub gently with water, a mild soap, and a washcloth.
- If some dirt or other debris is still in the wound, clean it again.
- If the wound starts to bleed, put direct, steady pressure on it.
If a chemical has caused a wound or burn, follow the instructions on the chemical’s container or call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) to find out what to do. Most chemicals should be rinsed off with lots of water, but with some chemicals, water may make the burn worse.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system’s ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don’t have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don’t have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call911or other emergency services now.
Put direct, steady pressure on the wound until help arrives. Keep the area raised if you can.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call911or other emergency services now.
Minor animal and human bites usually can be treated at home. If you do not have an increased chance of getting an infection, do not have other injuries, and do not need treatment by a doctor or a tetanus shot, you can clean and bandage a bite at home.
Stop the bleeding with direct pressure to the wound.
After you have stopped the bleeding, check your symptoms to determine if and when you need to see your doctor.
Clean the wound
Clean the animal or human bite as soon as possible to reduce the chance of infection and scarring.
- Wash the wound for 5 minutes with large amounts of clean water.
- Don’t use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, or Mercurochrome, which can harm the tissue and slow healing.
Some bites cause only bruising (contusions) at the bite site but do not break the skin. These bites usually do not become infected.
Stitches, staples, or skin adhesives (also called liquid skin)
Determine whether your bite needs to be treated by a doctor. Bites may need to be closed with sutures, staples, or skin adhesives so that they won’t leave a large scar. Bites to the hand are not usually closed because closing the bite wound may increase your chance of having an infection. Cat bites are rarely closed because they are usually no larger than a puncture.
Your doctor will tell you how to take care of your stitches or staples and when to return to have them removed. Skin adhesives usually do not need to be removed, but your doctor may wish to see you to check on the wound. Be sure to carefully follow your doctor’s instructions. If you are unsure of how to care for your wound or have questions, call your doctor for instructions.
Consider applying a bandage
Most bites heal well and may not need a bandage. You may need to protect the bite from dirt and irritation. Be sure to clean the bite thoroughly before bandaging it to reduce the risk of infection occurring under the bandage.
- Select the bandage carefully. There are many products available. Do not use liquid skin bandages and moisture-enhancing bandages unless your doctor tells you to. These types of dressings may seal in bacteria that could cause an infection.
- If you use a cloth-like bandage, apply a clean bandage when your bandage gets wet or soiled. If a bandage is stuck to a scab, soak it in warm water to soften the scab and make the bandage easier to remove. If available, use a nonstick dressing. There are many bandage products available. Be sure to read the product label for correct use.
- Watch for signs of infection. If an infection develops under a bandage, a visit to your doctor may be needed.
- Petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, will keep the bandage from sticking to the wound. Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the wound.
- Use an adhesive strip to hold the edges of a wound together. Always put an adhesive strip across a wound to hold the edges together, not lengthwise. You can make a butterfly bandage at home or purchase one to help hold the skin edges together.
- Determine whether you need a tetanus shot.
- You may have a localized reaction to a tetanus shot. Symptoms include warmth, swelling, and redness at the injection site. A mild fever may occur. Home treatment can help reduce the discomfort.
An ice or cold pack may help reduce swelling and bruising. Never apply ice directly to a wound or the skin. This could cause tissue damage.
Elevate the injured area on pillows while applying ice and anytime you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to reduce swelling.
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Talk to your child’s doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
After the bite
Many states require that animal control authorities be notified of animal bites. Even if your state law does not require you to report animal bites, you may wish to call animal control to report the bite. They can help you determine whether the animal that bit you:
- Has been properly vaccinated.
- Needs to be observed for signs of illness. A healthy pet that has bitten someone should be confined and observed for 10 days to see whether it develops symptoms of rabies.
- Is a rabies carrier in your area and whether you need to be vaccinated to prevent rabies.
- Is a danger to others.
If you are unable to find a phone number for animal control in the front pages of the telephone book, contact the police or sheriff’s office for the number.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- Signs of infection develop.
- Signs of loss of function develop.
- Pain gets worse.
- The wound does not heal.
- Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.
The following tips may help prevent bite injuries.
- Do not disturb animals, even your family pets, while they are eating, sleeping, or nursing. Animal mothers can be very aggressive when protecting their young.
- Never leave a young child or baby alone with a pet.
- Do not approach or play with unfamiliar or stray pets.
- Teach children to ask permission from a pet’s owner before petting the animal. Do not pet an animal without first letting it sniff you.
- Don’t run past a dog, because dogs naturally love to chase and catch things.
- Many animals give a warning sign before they attack. If you have animals in your home, know their warning signs and teach them to your children.
- Do not try to separate fighting animals. If available, water sprayed from a hose will often break up the fight.
- If you see a threatening dog:
- Stay still. Do not run.
- Do not make direct eye contact with the dog or stare at the dog. Staring at a dog may be interpreted by the dog as a threat and aggression.
- Don’t scream. If you say anything, speak calmly and firmly.
- If you fall or are knocked to the ground, curl into a ball with your hands over your head and neck. Protect your face.
- Notify animal control and, if possible, speak with the dog’s owners.
- Tell children to report an animal bite to an adult immediately.
- Do not keep wild animals as pets.
- Do not touch or tease wild animals.
- Do not handle sick or injured animals or animals that are acting strangely.
- Get help from animal control personnel if you need to rescue a trapped or injured animal. If no help is available, wear the heaviest gloves and clothing you have. Do not move quickly when approaching the animal, and talk in a low, gentle voice to reassure the animal.
Choose and care for your pets wisely
- Do not buy a pet on impulse. Do some research and learn about how different types of pets act and what their needs are. Ask a veterinarian or your local humane society for more information.
- Keep your animals healthy. Regular examinations and vaccinations are important for their health and for yours. Vaccinate pets against rabies and other diseases.
- Promote attitudes of animal love and respect. Do not tolerate any form of animal abuse or cruelty.
- Obedience-train your dogs. If you have children, involve them in the training so they can handle and learn respect for their companion animals. Keep pets on a leash in public areas.
- Do not allow your pets to roam free. Fence your yard, and keep your pets on a leash in public areas.
- Contact your local humane society or shelter about workshops for your school or service group that teach about animal care.
- Prevent human bites by controlling behavior that may lead to fights or abuse. For more information, see the topic Anger, Hostility, and Violent Behavior.
- Teach your child not to bite. Biting most commonly occurs when many children are together, such as in child care centers. Most of the time, biting can be reduced by proper supervision and by helping children express their feelings in more appropriate ways. For more information, see the topic Biting.
Preparing For Your Appointment
To prepare for your appointment, see the topicMaking the Most of Your Appointment.
Questions to prepare for your appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- When did the bite occur?
- Where were you when the bite occurred?
- How did the bite occur? Describe what happened.
- Were you bitten by a domestic pet or a wild animal?
- Do you know the animal, or was it a stray?
- Was the animal acting strangely?
- Is the animal safely secured?
- Have you notified your local animal control department?
- Was the bite provoked?
- What are your main symptoms?
- What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help? Be sure to include any nonprescription medicines you have taken or used. Did they help?
- When was your last tetanus shot?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP – Emergency Medicine & Adam Husney MD – Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD – Family Medicine & H. Michael O’Connor MD – Emergency Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD – Family Medicine