Family pets, such as dogs and cats, are responsible for most animal bites. Wild animals, such as raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes, might attack if they feel threatened, are sick or are protecting their young. Animal bites are rarely life-threatening, but if they become infected, they can lead to serious medical problems. Early and appropriate treatment is key to minimizing the risk of infection. Here’s how to properly assess an animal bite and the various treatment options that are available.
First Aid for Animal Bites
- Once you’re safely away from the animal, wash the bite area gently with soap and water.
- If the bite is bleeding, put pressure on it using a sterile cloth or gauze.
- Once the bleeding has stopped, put antibiotic ointment on the area to reduce the risk of infection and cover it with a bandage or sterile gauze. The wound should be kept clean and dry.
- If the bite is from a pet, find out if the animal’s rabies shots are up to date.
When To Get Medical Care
Animal bites can be evaluated in a walk-in clinic, doctor’s office or hospital’s emergency department. You should seek immediate medical care if:
- The bite was caused by a wild or stray animal, as it may have rabies
- Bleeding can’t be stopped after 15 minutes of firm pressure
- The bite has broken the skin
- You think the bite may have caused damage to the bone or nerves
- You have a weakened immune system
- You have not had a tetanus shot within the past five years
- The affected area oozes or becomes red, swollen and more painful
Minor bites can be treated at home, but serious ones may require prompt medical care by a physician. The seriousness of the bite depends on the type of animal, the location of the injury and whether a foreign object — such as teeth or clothing — is stuck in the wound.
Your health care provider will thoroughly examine the wound to look for any debris that may have become embedded into the bite area. Depending on the extent of the injury, sometimes the wound is numbed with lidocaine to decrease pain while the doctor performs a complete inspection and thorough cleaning.
The doctor may order X-rays to look for bone fractures or to verify that nothing remains inside the wound. In some cases, the health care provider will spray irrigation solution into the affected area to wash out anything that may contaminate the wound.
Serious bites and crush-type injuries usually require debridement. When the skin and tissue is torn apart, it’s often nonrepairable. A medical professional will numb the wound with lidocaine, then cut the skin with either small scissors or a scalpel to remove dead or infected tissue.
Some wounds may require stitches immediately after the bite. Your physician will discuss the advantages and risks of primary closure. Antibiotics may also be prescribed to prevent infection.
The majority of animal bites heal quickly without serious complications, unless the wound is extremely severe. For more information on how to properly assess an animal bite, see the accompanying infographic.
Author bio: Tracy Tiernan received his Bachelor of Arts
degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas in 1987. He went on
to secure his J.D., or law degree, from The University of Tulsa in 1990. While
attending law school, Tracy interned for a highly successful Personal Injury
Law firm in the Tulsa area where he was involved in the litigation and trial
preparation of Personal Injury, Workers’ Compensation and Criminal cases.
Tracy, who was involved in a bit of college sports, enjoys running,
participating in the occasional obstacle race, and coaching his children’s
soccer teams to keep his mind sharp. He resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his
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