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April 05, 2021

Animal bites — when you should seek medical attention

Adult Health Injuries

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When it comes to animal bites, people tend to think of a wild animal encounter gone wrong while camping, hiking, or engaging in other outdoor activities. But the truth is, the majority of bites come from domesticated animals, such as a family pet. In fact, there are nearly five million dog and cat bites reported each year in the United States alone.

The main thing to be concerned about with animal bites is the risk of infection. The most dangerous possible infection is rabies, an often-fatal disease that can be transmitted to humans through an animal bite. In the U.S., rabies is usually found in wild animals, such as bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes. If proper medical attention isn’t received in a timely manner following exposure, rabies can infect a person’s central nervous system and ultimately lead to death. Due to this severe risk, any wild animal bite should be reported to a doctor immediately.

Fortunately, pets are generally vaccinated against rabies, but even domesticated animals have mouths full of bacteria that can cause serious illness if a bite is not dealt with appropriately. For this reason, it’s important to be knowledgeable of what you should do if you or someone you’re with gets bitten by an animal.

Treatment for minor bites

While dog bites often look worse, cat bites and scratches that break the skin can carry a greater risk of infection and should always be reported to a doctor. Other minor animal bites that result in broken skin should be thoroughly cleaned using soap and warm water. Once the wound has been washed, apply antibacterial ointment and a bandage to protect the wound. If the person bitten has not received a tetanus booster shot in five to ten years (or more), they should schedule an appointment to receive the vaccination as soon as possible.

Continue to monitor the bite — even if it is minor. Common symptoms of infection can include pain, swelling, redness, warmth around the wound, drainage, and fever. If an infection is suspected or you have any uncertainty at all, checking with your doctor or an urgent care center is your best bet.

How to manage more serious bites

In the case of a serious bite, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately. A serious bite is any that has bleeding you cannot control, nerve damage, swelling or bruising, or signs of an infection. Apply firm pressure to the wound until a doctor is able to examine the bite, perform any necessary tests, and provide treatment. Be transparent with your medical provider about how the bite occurred, the animal that bit you, and any other relevant circumstances. This will help your doctor determine your risk for infection and the best course of treatment.

As a precaution, you should always call your healthcare provider to inform them of an animal bite — even in the case of a minor bite. A wound that seems minor at first could show signs of infection as more time passes. Giving your doctor a heads up will allow him or her to act quickly should treatment be required at a later time.

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.

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