Animal and Human Bites

How do bites happen?

You may be bitten by:

  • Wild, rabies-prone animals such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, or bats
  • Small wild animals such as squirrels, mice, rats, rabbits, prairie dogs, and chipmunks, which are usually free of rabies but can cause other illnesses, such as plague
  • Dogs, cats, or other pets or domestic animals, such as horses, which may cause serious wound infections
  • Small indoor pets such as gerbils or hamsters, which are not likely to have rabies
  • Other people, usually during fights

Bites can happen when you are playing with a pet or trying to feed a wild animal. Some animals, such as cats, have very sharp, pointy teeth that tend to cause puncture wounds. A puncture wound may not look like it is anything to worry about, but bacteria may have been pushed deep into the wound. Puncture wounds are hard to clean, so bacteria may be left in the wound and cause an infection.

It is very easy for a human bite to become infected because of the bacteria in the mouth. Any bite that breaks the skin should be treated by your healthcare provider.

What are the symptoms?

Bites may cause:

  • Puncture wounds, deep cuts, or scrapes in the skin
  • Bruises
  • Bleeding

If the bite becomes infected, signs of infection include redness, pain, swelling, and pus. You may also have swollen glands or a fever and feel sick. These symptoms often mean you have a serious infection, especially if you have red streaks on the skin around the wound.

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will look at the area of the bite. Your provider will ask how the bite happened to see if you need more tests. For example, your provider will ask if you knew the animal and if the animal seemed to be acting normally. If the bite is deep and your bone could have been damaged or is at risk of getting infected, you may have X-rays. Bone infections can be very serious and hard to treat.

Some animals such as snakes or lizards inject venom into the skin, which can cause illness and even death. It can be very helpful to your healthcare provider if you know what type of animal has bitten you.

How are they treated?

Treatment depends on how you were bitten and how badly you are injured.

Follow these first aid measures for all bites that break the skin:

  • If you don’t think you need emergency help, wash the area with mild soap and water. Wash your hands well with soap and water before and after you touch the area.
  • Put a clean bandage on the wound. If the bandage gets wet or dirty, wash the area and put on a clean bandage as soon as possible.
  • If you think the bite has caused a life or limb-threatening injury, call 911 or your local emergency services. Control bleeding by putting pressure on the wound. Don’t use a tourniquet.

In all cases of animal or human bites where the skin has been broken, check with your healthcare provider within 24 hours. Your provider may suggest that you:

  • Have a tetanus shot within 48 hours if you haven’t had one in the last 5 years.
  • Put antibiotic ointment on the bite.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Take antibiotics to prevent infection. Follow the directions exactly. Take the medicine until it is completely gone. Don’t stop taking it just because you feel better.
  • Have stitches or surgical repair, depending on how large or deep the bite is, where it is, and whether the bleeding has stopped.
  • Report the bite to animal control if you were bitten by an animal that might carry rabies. It is important that animal control identify or safely restrain an unknown, untagged dog. It will help your provider determine if you need rabies shots.

The time it takes for wounds to heal depends on how badly you were bitten and your overall health condition. If the bite is infected, the infection will usually heal in 7 to 10 days with treatment.

A deep bite may cause scarring. It might damage nearby nerves.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent animal bites?

Be aware of how animals act before they bite. For example, they may raise or flatten their ears, show their teeth, growl, or snarl. Don’t approach or touch strange animals.

Use precautions to protect yourself from attack:

  • Carry high-frequency sound or spray repellents (such as Mace or pepper spray) when you are walking or jogging.
  • Wear hiking boots or shoes that cover your ankles when you hike or camp.
  • Do not touch or tease wild animals, and do not handle wild animals that are hurt.

To help protect others from animal bites you can:

  • Keep your pet on a leash. If your dog is likely to bite, warn people or put a muzzle on your dog.
  • Keep your pet in an enclosed and secure area. Put up signs to warn people that your dog may bite.
  • Make sure your pet gets rabies shots to protect your pet and any human that it bites.

If you see an animal behaving strangely or foaming at the mouth or if an animal has bitten someone:

  • Report it to the local animal control or police.
  • Tell the pet’s owner.

If you regularly handle animals that could have rabies, get the rabies vaccine. This vaccine can help keep you from getting rabies if you are bitten. You may need a blood test every year to see if you need a rabies booster shot.

Teach your children not to approach or touch strange animals.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-07-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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