Animal and Human Bites

Topic Overview

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.

Animal bites

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, it is important 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 for bacterial infection because they can be difficult 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.

Human bites

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.

When you have a bite:

  • Stop the bleeding. See how to stop bleeding.
  • Determine whether other tissues, such as blood vessels, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, or internal organs, have been injured.
  • Determine whether evaluation and treatment by a doctor are 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.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

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 evaluation by a doctor or a tetanus shot, you can clean and bandage a bite at home. Home treatment can prevent infection and promote healing.

Treat bleeding

Allow the bite to bleed freely to clean itself out unless there has been a large loss of blood or the blood is squirting out. To stop heavy bleeding, try firm, direct pressure on the wound. For more information, see how to stop bleeding.

  • Mild bleeding can almost always be stopped within 15 minutes by applying direct pressure to the wound.
  • Moderate bleeding can usually be slowed or stopped by applying steady, direct pressure to the wound for 15 minutes.
  • Severe bleeding cannot be slowed or stopped by applying steady, direct pressure to the wound for 15 minutes.

After the bleeding has been stopped, use the Check Your Symptoms section of this topic 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 cool water and soap (mild dishwashing soap, such as Ivory, works well). For more information, see how to clean a bite. Some nonprescription products are available for wound cleaning that numb the area so cleaning does not hurt as much. Be sure to read the product label for correct use.
  • Do not 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. For more information, see are stitches, staples, or skin adhesives necessary?

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. It is important 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.
  • An antibiotic ointment, such as polymyxin B sulfate (for example, Polysporin) or bacitracin, will keep the bandage from sticking to the wound. Apply the ointment lightly to the wound. Antibiotic ointments have not been shown to improve healing. Be sure to read the product label about skin sensitivity. If a skin rash or itching under the bandage develops, stop using the ointment. The rash may be caused by an allergic reaction to the ointment.
  • 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.

Tetanus

  • 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 fever of up to 100°F (37.8°C) may occur. Home treatment can help reduce the discomfort.

Pain relief

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.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
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.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

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

Use the Check Your Symptoms section of this topic to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Signs of loss of function develop.
  • Signs of decreased blood flow develop.
  • Pain gets worse.
  • Fever, swollen glands, muscle aches, joint pain, rash, chills, nausea, or vomiting occur within a few weeks of a bite.
  • The wound does not heal.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may help prevent bite injuries.

Animals

  • 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 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.

Human bites

  • 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 Biting.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of 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?

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Steven L. Schneider, MD - Family Medicine
Last Updated June 10, 2008

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