How should I take care of a bite from a cat or a dog?
Whether from a family pet or a neighborhood stray, cat and dog bites are common.
Here are some things you should do to take care of a wound caused by a cat or dog bite:
- If necessary, call your doctor (see the shaded box below).
- Wash the wound gently with soap and water.
- Apply pressure with a clean towel to the injured area to stop any bleeding.
- Apply a sterile bandage to the wound.
- Keep the injury elevated above the level of the heart to slow swelling and prevent infection.
- If necessary, report the incident to the proper authority in your community (for example, the animal control office or the police).
- Apply antibiotic ointment to the area 2 times every day until it heals.
What will my doctor do?
Here are some things your doctor may do to treat a cat or dog bite:
- Examine the wound for possible nerve damage, tendon damage or bone injury. He or she will also check for signs of infection.
- Clean the wound with a special solution and remove any damaged tissue.
- May use stitches to close a bite wound, but often the wound is left open to heal, which can lower the risk of infection.
- May prescribe an antibiotic to prevent infection.
- May give you a tetanus shot if you had your last shot more than 5 years ago.
- May ask you to schedule an office visit to check your wound again in 1 to 2 days.
- If your injury is severe, or if the infection has not gotten better even though you're taking antibiotics, your doctor may suggest that you see a specialist and/or go to the hospital, where you can get special medicine given intravenously (through an IV needle into your vein) and further treatment if necessary.
Call your doctor in any of these situations:
- You have a cat bite. Cat bites often cause infection. You don't need to call your doctor for a cat scratch, unless you think the wound is infected.
- You have a dog bite on your hand, foot or head, or you have a bite that is deep or gaping.
- You have diabetes, liver or lung disease, cancer, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or another condition that could weaken your ability to fight infection.
- You have any signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, warmth, increased tenderness, oozing of pus from the wound or a fever.
- You have bleeding that doesn't stop after 15 minutes of pressure or you think you may have a broken bone, nerve damage or another serious injury.
- Your last tetanus shot (vaccine) was more than 5 years ago. (If so, you may need a booster shot.)
- You were bitten by a wild animal or a domestic animal (such as a pet) of unknown vaccination status.
Will I need a rabies shot?
Probably not. Rabies is uncommon in dogs and cats in the United States. (It is more common in wild animals like skunks, raccoons, bats and coyotes.) If a dog or cat that bit you appeared to be healthy at the time of the bite, it's unlikely that the animal had rabies. However, it's a good idea to take some precautions if you're bitten by a dog or cat.
If you know the owner of the dog or cat that bit you, ask for the pet's vaccination record (record of shots). An animal that appears healthy and has been vaccinated may still be quarantined (kept away from people and other animals) for 10 days to make sure it doesn't start showing signs of rabies. If the animal gets sick during the 10-day period, a veterinarian will test it for rabies. If the animal does have rabies, you will need to get a series of rabies shots (see below).
If the animal is a stray or you can't find the owner of the dog or cat that bit you, call the animal control agency or health department in your area. They will try to find the animal so it can be tested for rabies.
If the animal control agency or health department can't find the animal that bit you, if the animal shows signs of rabies after the bite or if a test shows that the animal has rabies, your doctor will probably want you to get a series of rabies shots (also called post-exposure prophylaxis). You need to get 2 shots as soon as possible after the bite occurs. After this, your doctor will give you 3 more shots over a 14-day period.
How can I prevent cat and dog bites?
Here are some things you can do to prevent bites:
- Never leave a young child alone with a pet. They often don't know how to be gentle with the pet, which can cause the pet to get irritated and bite.
- Do not try to separate fighting animals. You may get bit in the process.
- Avoid sick animals and/or animals that you don't know whether or not they are vaccinated.
- Leave animals alone while they are eating. Animals are often very protective of their food.
- Keep pets on a leash when in public.
- Select your family pet carefully and be sure to keep your pet's vaccinations (shots) up-to-date.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff