Animal bites are common. More than 1 million bite injuries require medical attention each year, and animal bites account for 1% of all emergency room visits in the United States. The majority of these bites (or scratches) come from our feline and canine friends, as two-thirds of American household enjoy the companionship of dogs or cats. A little knowledge of these injuries, how to care for them and when to get help can go a long way in preventing or minimizing complications
Dog and cat bites can become seriously infected. It is estimated that 3 – 18% of dog bites and 28-80% of cat bites/scratches become infected. One reason for this is that the mouths (and claws) of these animals are full of bacteria – more than 64 species for dogs! Also, bite wounds can look deceptively small but penetrate deeply into the underlying tissue; so called puncture wounds, in which small sharp teeth/claws effectively bury all those bacteria well under the skin. Hands and forearms are the most commonly affected sites of injury, which usually occur while playing with a pet or holding the arms up in a defensive posture. These sites are especially vulnerable as the nerves and tendons and muscles are not far from the surface and so are more likely to be damaged with deep or penetrating injuries.
The best treatment is prevention, so exercise caution around animals you don’t know, and be wary of rough play or handling your otherwise loving pet while he/she is eating, injured, or otherwise not feeling well. If you get a bite that breaks the skin but is superficial, wash the area very thoroughly with antibacterial soap and water and apply an antibiotic cream. If you have not had a tetanus shot in more than 10 years, get one. If the skin is badly torn or there is a puncture wound, or if a wild or unfamiliar animal bites you seek medical attention right away.
You should also seek medical attention immediately for any signs of infection or more serious injury. Some of these are listed below and will usually develop within 12-24 hours.
redness or swelling around site
pain at site
red streak up extremity from site
A REASSURING NOTE ABOUT RABIES: Human rabies is a horrible, fatal infection - it is also very rare in the US, averaging 1-3 deaths per year for the last 20 years. Rabies infection of cats and dogs is also very low. Rabies is most often found in non-rodent wild animals; i.e. bats, skunks, raccoons, foxes etc. Infected animals are often acting strangely, such as nocturnal animals being visible in the daytime. Bats are the major source of human rabies in the US and anyone exposed to a bat in an enclosed space should seek medical attention, even if there is no known history of a bite. Medical attention should be sought promptly is there is a concern but the treatment does not need to be administered emergently to be effective.
Dr. Amy Movius, MD