Copyright 2013 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Animal Bites

Animal bites are very common. Most bites occur on the fingers of the dominant hand, but animal bites can also occur about the head and neck area.

Even if a bite does not break the skin, it may cause a crushing and tearing injury to underlying bone, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves. If the skin is broken, there is the additional possibility of infection.

Most animal bites in the United States are from dogs. Cat bites are the second most common cause of bites. The risk of infection from a cat bite is much higher than a bite from a dog.

In addition to infection, a major concern about an animal bite is the possibility of rabies. Because most pets in the United States are vaccinated, most cases of rabies result from the bite of a wild animal, such as a skunk, bat, or raccoon.

If you or a family member is bitten by a wild or unknown animal, report the incident to the public health department. They may ask for assistance in locating the animal. This is so that the animal can be confined and observed for symptoms of rabies.

Symptoms

Signs of an infection include:

  • Warmth around the wound
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Discharge of pus
  • Redness around a puncture wound

Signs of damage to tendons or nerves include:

  • An inability to bend or straighten the finger
  • A loss of feeling over the tip of the finger

Treatment

If you or a family member is bitten by an animal, contact your doctor.

Immediate First Aid

Do not put the bitten area in your mouth. The mouth contains bacteria, which can cause infection.

For superficial wounds, the area should be washed thoroughly with soap and water or an antiseptic, such as hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. Apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the wound with a nonstick bandage.

Watch the area carefully for signs of infection or damaged nerves or tendons. Some bruising may develop. The wound should heal within a week to 10 days. If it does not, or if there are signs of infection or damage to nerves and tendons, contact your doctor.

Presence of Bleeding

Apply direct pressure to the wound with a clean dry cloth, and elevate the wound, if possible. If the wound stops bleeding, do not clean it. Cover the wound with a clean sterile dressing and contact your doctor.

If the wound is to the face, head, or neck, medical help should be sought immediately.

Medical Assistance

Your doctor will wash the wound area thoroughly. If the bite is on the hand, your doctor will also check for signs of nerve or tendon damage. Your arm may also be examined to see whether there are signs of a spreading infection.

If it has been more than five years since you have had a tetanus shot, your doctor may recommend a booster shot.

Your doctor may order a blood test, and x-rays may be needed to check for any injury to bones.

Your doctor will probably leave the wound open (without stitches), unless it is a facial wound. Antibiotics may be prescribed.

If the tendons or nerves have been injured, a specialist may be consulted for additional treatment.

Last reviewed: September 2013
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS "Find an Orthopaedist" program on this website.
Copyright 2013 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Related Topics
Infection (http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00197)
Rabies (http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00020)
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