An animal bite can break, puncture, or tear the skin. Animal bites that break the skin put you at risk for infections.
Most animal bites come from pets. Dog bites are common and most often happen to children. Cat bites are less common, but have a higher risk of infection. Cat teeth are longer and sharper, which can cause deeper puncture wounds. Most other animal bites are caused by stray or wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats.
Bites that cause a puncture wound are more likely to become infected. Some animals are infected with a virus that can cause rabies. Rabies is rare, but can be deadly.
Possible symptoms include:
- Breaks or major cuts in the skin, with or without bleeding
- Crushing injuries
- Puncture wounds
Because of the risk of infection, you should see your doctor within 24 hours for any bite that breaks the skin. If you are caring for someone who was bitten:
- Calm and reassure the person.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before treating the wound.
- If the wound is bleeding, put on latex gloves if you have them.
- Wash your hands again afterward.
To care for the wound:
- Stop the wound from bleeding by applying direct pressure with a clean, dry cloth.
- Wash the wound. Use mild soap and warm, running water. Rinse the bite for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Apply an antibacterial ointment to the wound. This may help reduce the risk of infection.
- Put on a sterile bandage.
- If the bite is on the neck, head, face, hand, or fingers, call your doctor right away.
For deeper wounds, you may need stitches. The health care provider may give you a tetanus shot if you have not had one in the last 5 years. You may also need to take antibiotics. If the infection has spread, you may receive antibiotics through a vein (IV).
When to Call Animal Control
You should call animal control or your local police if you are bitten by:
- An animal that behaves in an odd way
- An unknown pet or a pet that has not had a rabies vaccination
- A stray or wild animal
Tell them what the animal looks like and where it is. They will decide whether the animal needs to be captured and isolated.
An animal bite is more likely to become infected in people who have:
- Weakened immune systems due to medicines or disease
- Peripheral artery vascular disease (arteriosclerosis)
Getting a rabies shot right after you are bitten can protect you from the disease.
How to Prevent Animal Bites
To prevent animal bites:
- Teach children not to approach strange animals.
- DO NOT provoke or tease animals.
- DO NOT go near an animal that is acting strangely or aggressively. It may have rabies. DO NOT try to catch the animal yourself.
When to Call the Doctor
Wild animals and unknown pets could be carrying rabies. If you have been bitten by a wild or stray animal, contact your provider right away. See your provider within 24 hours for any bite that breaks the skin.
Call your provider or go to the emergency room if:
- There is swelling, redness, or pus draining from the wound.
- The bite is on the your head, face, neck, or hands.
- The bite is deep or large.
- You are not sure if the wound needs stitches.
- The bleeding does not stop after a few minutes. For serious bleeding, call your local emergency number, such as 911.
- You have not had a tetanus shot in 5 years.
Bites - animals - self-care
Goldstein EJC, Abrahamian FM. Bites. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 320.
West HH, Weber EJ. Mammalian bites. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 61.
Review Date 5/14/2016
Updated by: Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services / Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.