How to Treat Animal Bites

Two Parts:Treating Animal Bites at HomeGetting Medical Attention

Animal bites pose major public health problems around the world, especially for young children who are most susceptible to dying from serious bites. In the U.S., dog bites are the most common, followed by cats and then reptiles. More specifically, there are an estimated 4.5 million dog bites each year in the U.S., with between five and 10% requiring emergency medical treatment.[1] In other parts of the world, monkey and other animal bites are significant too. Children are the most commonly bitten by animals and their small stature means their face and hands are most susceptible to injury.[2] Being able to treat animal bites at home with basic first aid is important, as is recognizing when medical attention is needed.

Part 1
Treating Animal Bites at Home

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    Make sure you're safe. Before treating any animal bites, you need to make sure that you and/or the injured person is safe from the attacking animal. Running away to your house or car is recommended, but sometimes force may be needed to drive the animal off. Throwing rocks from a distance is probably safest, but kicking or hitting the animal to get it to release its bite is sometimes required and can save a life.
    • Try making yourself as big as you can and yell loudly in attempts to scare the animal off before getting physical with it.
    • Almost 50% of all dog bites involve an animal owned by the victim's family or neighbors, so getting away from the dog is usually not too difficult.[3]
    • Getting attacked in the wild by a large animal (bear, wolf, badger) is much more serious. "Playing dead" has worked for some, but so has running away or counter-attacking. Animals are unpredictable and bite for many different reasons.
    • If an animal seems to be protecting its territory or family, running is the best option. If it seems to be hunting or attacking by its own accord, scaring, playing dead, or attacking are the best options.
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    Clean the wound immediately. If you or your child is bitten by an animal, once you're safe from further harm, clean the wound as soon as you can by running water over it for a few minutes.[4] Carefully remove any objects from the bite (teeth, hair or dirt) and then gently wash the wound more thoroughly with soap and warm water. Using saline (a saltwater solution) is also a good idea. You may have to remove clothing or roll up pants/sleeves to get to the wound.
    • Use anti-bacterial soap if possible in order to help sanitize the wound — the mouths of all animals (including humans) contain lots of bacteria.
    • Don't forget to wash your hands with soap and water if you're treating an animal bite on someone else. Better yet, wear protective gloves if you have any.
    • If you need tweezers to remove any debris from the bite wound, rinse them in rubbing alcohol first to prevent the transfer of bacteria.
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    Encourage a minor wound to bleed a little. If the bite wound is relatively minor, encourage it to bleed slightly by gently squeezing it or by putting pressure on the sides of the wound.[5] Allowing the wound to bleed a little helps to flush out any bacteria or debris that's deeper in the tissues. A minute or two should be enough before trying to stop the bleeding (see below).
    • If the bite wound is already bleeding freely then don't encourage it any further. A continual trickle of blood is sufficient to help clean out the wound and reduce some of the pressure caused by inflammation.
    • Any spurting of blood from a bite wound is an indication that a blood vessel is severely damaged and medical attention is needed as soon as possible.
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    Stop the bleeding of a more serious wound. If the bite wound is still bleeding heavily after washing and cleaning it, then stopping the flow of blood is important to prevent the victim from going into shock.[6] The best way of doing this is to put a clean cloth, pad or sterile dressing over the wound and applying significant pressure for a few minutes.
    • Applying pressure to a wound triggers the blood to coagulate and clot, which seals the wound and starts the healing process.
    • Keep the bite wound elevated above the level of your heart to slow bleeding and swelling.
    • If you can't control the bleeding with pressure and you are far from help, you may have to tie a tourniquet above the wound, which puts pressure on the arteries and cuts off circulation. Rope, cord, belts, a scarf, and pieces of ripped clothing can be used as tourniquets.
    • Tourniquets should only be used in emergency life-threatening situations and for short durations because tissue starts to die within a few hours of not getting blood.
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    Bandage the bite wound. After the bleeding is under control, dry the wound as best you can and cover it with a clean dressing or bandage that covers the wound entirely.[7] Before applying the bandage, apply some antibacterial cream to the wound (Neosporin, Polysporin) if you have any to help prevent infection. The cream will also keep the dressing from sticking to the wound and causing more bleeding when the bandages are changed.
    • Natural sanitizers you can add to the wound include as iodine solution and hydrogen peroxide, although both will sting and cause some discomfort for a few minutes.[8]
    • Butterfly bandages help to hold the edges of a wound together. Place the across the wound (rather than lengthwise) and pull the edges closer together.
    • If the bite wound is quite deep and/or jagged, you'll likely need stitches from a doctor.
    • Change the bandage daily. Replacing the old bandage with a fresh one each day keeps the wound clean and promotes healing.
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    Save any severed body parts. In extreme cases, people lose body parts from animal bites, particularly fingers and ears. If this is the case with you or your child, save the part and wash it thoroughly along with your body wound. Rinse it with saline water, ideally.
    • Wrap the severed body part in a clean tissue/dressing and place it in a plastic bag surrounded by ice so it can be transported to the hospital.[9] Ice retards tissue decomposition.
    • It's often possible to surgically reattach the severed body part at a hospital if the tissue isn't too damaged.
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    Take some pain medication. The pain related to an animal's bite is due to tissue damage and swelling of the puncture wound. Thus, take an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) — it can be helpful to reduce pain and inflammation in the short term.[10] Painkillers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, Paracetamol) can be used for animal bites also, but they don't impact the swelling.
    • Children and teenagers shouldn't take aspirin,[11] and children under two should not be given ibuprofen[12] so stick with child's Tylenol or something similar.
    • If you are severely bleeding from an animal, then take acetaminophen for pain relief instead of NSAIDs because they tend to "thin" the blood and reduce your body's clotting ability.
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    Get calmed down. Getting bitten by an animal is a traumatic experience, especially if it's a vicious attack or by your own pet. Calm yourself or your child down with deep breaths and reassurance that they're safe and going to be fine. Keep yourself or your child warm with a blanket or appropriate clothing to help prevent shock. Signs of shock include: rapid breathing, rapid pulse, pale skin, dizziness, weakness, shaking and mental changes (confusion, anxiousness, agitation).[13]
    • Encourage crying or venting if need be. Don't bottle up any emotions.
    • Prepare for any potential vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are common side effects from fear and pain due to the increased release of hormones, such as adrenaline.

Part 2
Getting Medical Attention

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    Know when to get medical attention. Most animal bites don't puncture the skin, at least not very deeply, so the risk of severe bleeding or infection is minimal. In these cases, seeing a doctor is probably not needed. However, with more serious injuries involving lots of bleeding and deep wounds, medical attention is always recommended.[14]
    • If your doctor thinks the risk of infection is low, then they will close the wound with stitches. However, if the wound is deep and caused by a puncture, then then it will likely be left open and cleaned regularly.
    • Dog bites are much more common than cat bites, but infection is more likely with cats because they inflict deeper puncture wounds that can't be thoroughly disinfected.[15]
    • Your doctor might take x-rays to rule out broken bones and check your nervous system to rule out nerve damage.
    • Your doctor may want to know more about the location of the bite and type of animal so they can report the attack to the animal control office or police. Animals that bite people are a public hazard.
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    Watch for signs of infection. Regardless of how serious you think your bite wound is, you should be vigilant about watching for signs of infection. Slicing or tearing bite wounds and gashes are less likely to get infected than deep puncture wounds, even with careful washing.[16] Signs that indicate your bite wound is infected include: increased swelling and pain, discharge of yellow or green pus from the wound, red skin that's very warm to the touch, high fever, chills and/or a feeling of fatigue.[17]
    • If you notice any of these signs, don't try to treat the infection at home. Instead, head to a walk-in clinic or make an appointment with your doctor.
    • Any red streaking around the wound indicates an infection in the lymph system (lymphangitis), which can be life threatening.
    • In addition to treating the wound with antibiotic cream, your doctor may prescribe some antibiotic pills for a few weeks to either fight an infection or prevent one.
    • Between 15 and 20% of dog bites get infected, whereas the infection rate is higher with cat bites — almost 50%.[18][19]
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    Get a rabies shot. Bites from non-immunized domestic animals (such as pets) or any wild animal carries the risk of rabies — a potentially deadly viral infection that affects the central nervous system.[20] Rabies is more common from the bites of bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes than it is from dogs and cats because most domestic animals are vaccinated against rabies.
    • Some animals, such as rabbits, squirrels and other rodents rarely carry rabies.
    • A rabies shot should be given within 48 hours of getting bit, although it can be avoided if the animal is documented to be vaccinated and is free of infection.
    • Signs of rabies start out like most other viral infections (fever, headache, weakness), but it can progress to confusion, agitation, hallucinations, paralysis and foaming at the mouth.[21]
    • Death usually occurs within days once rabies infects the brain and causes advanced symptoms.
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    Consider a tetanus shot also. Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that can develop from any infected wound, especially if it's caused by a deep puncture. If you have not received a tetanus booster shot within the past 10 years and get a puncture wound from an animal (not just a surface scratch), then you should see your doctor and get vaccinated as soon as you can.[22]
    • Most people are vaccinated against tetanus shortly after birth, but immunity often wears off after ten years, so booster shots are occasionally needed.
    • Signs and symptoms of tetanus tend to appear anytime from a couple of days to a few weeks after the tetanus bacteria enters your body from a bite wound.
    • Common symptoms of tetanus include: fever, sweating, stiff neck, stiffness or spasms in jaw and abdominal muscles, difficulty swallowing.[23]


  • Preventing animal bites mainly takes common sense. It's important to always avoid stray or wild animals; never try to feed or approach them.
  • Be very cautious with approaching an animal with babies. Most animals are very protective of their offspring and will go to any length to keep them safe, even if it means death.
  • Never leave a child unsupervised with a dog, regardless of breed or previous behavior.
  • Don't try to separate fighting animals, domestic or wild. You'll likely get bit while doing it.
  • Leave all animals alone while they're eating as they tend to be very protective of their food.
  • Avoid petting unfamiliar dogs when greeting them for the first time. Let the dog sniff you before trying to touch it and always ask the owner first.
  • Never taunt, scream at, hit, kick, throw things at, or otherwise try to provoke or upset animals (even pets).
  • Avoid putting animals into scary situations. All animals (including humans) have the instinct to defend themselves if they think they are in danger.


  • Severe blood loss will quickly make you feel weak and tired (and maybe pass out), so ask someone near you for help or call 9-1-1 for assistance.

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