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Animal Bites

All animal bites need to be correctly cleaned, and most need treatment based on the type and severity of the wound. Whether the bite is from a family pet or an animal in the wild, scratches and bites can become infected and cause scarring. Animals can also carry diseases that can be transmitted through a bite. Bites that break the skin and bites of the scalp, face, hand, wrist, or foot are more likely to become infected. In general, cat bites are more likely to become infected than dog bites. Cat scratches, even from a kitten, can carry "cat scratch disease," a bacterial infection.

Other animals can transmit rabies and, in very rare cases, tetanus. Rodents such as mice, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, and rabbits are at low risk of carrying rabies, but they can transmit other diseases.

The most common type of animal bite is a dog bite. Follow these guidelines to help decrease the chance of your child being bitten by an animal:

  • Never leave a young child alone with an animal.

  • Teach your child not to tease or hurt an animal.

  • Teach your child to never play with or bother an animal when it is eating or sleeping.

  • Teach your child to stay away from strange dogs, cats, and other animals.

  • Have your pets licensed and immunized against rabies and other diseases.

  • Keep your pets in a fenced yard or secured to a leash.

How to respond to dog or cat bites and scratches

When your child is bitten or scratched by an animal, remain calm and reassure your child that you can help. Your healthcare provider will figure out specific treatment for an animal bite. Treatment may include:

  • For superficial bites from a familiar household pet that is immunized and in good health:

    • Wash the wound with soap and water under pressure from a faucet for at least 5 minutes. Don't scrub as this may bruise the tissue. Apply an antiseptic lotion or cream.

    • Watch for signs of infection at the site, such as increased redness or pain, swelling, or drainage, or if your child develops a fever. Call your child's healthcare provider right away if any of these occur.

  • For deeper bites or puncture wounds from any animal, or for any bite from a strange animal:

    • If the bite or scratch is bleeding, apply pressure to it with a clean bandage or towel to stop the bleeding. If the bleeding doesn't stop after 10 to 15 minutes of direct pressure, take your child to an emergency room.

    • Wash the wound with soap and water under pressure from a faucet for at least 5 minutes. Don't scrub as this may bruise the tissue.

    • Dry the wound and cover it with a sterile dressing. Don't use tape or butterfly bandages to close the wound as this could trap harmful bacteria in the wound. If there is a large open wound on a cosmetically important area of the body, bring your child to your provider or to an emergency room. This will likely need a lot of cleaning and possible repair with stitches.

    • Call your child's healthcare provider for help in reporting the attack and to decide if additional treatment, such as antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or rabies vaccine is needed. This is especially important for bites on the face or for bites that cause deeper puncture wounds of the skin.

    • If possible, locate the animal that inflicted the wound. Some animals need to be captured, confined, and observed for rabies. Don't try to capture the animal yourself. Contact the nearest animal warden or animal control office in your area.

    • Take your child to the emergency room if the bite, cut, or scratch is from an animal at-risk for rabies, such as non-vaccinated dogs, cats, or wild animals such as bats, skunks, raccoons, fox, or coyotes.

    • If the animal can't be found or is a high-risk species (raccoon, skunk, or bat), or the animal attack was unprovoked, your child may need a series of rabies shots.

Call your child's healthcare provider for any flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, malaise, decreased appetite, or swollen glands following an animal bite.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Maryann Foley RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.