First Aid: Animal Bites

First Aid: Animal Bites (2)

Animal bites and scratches that break the skin can sometimes cause infection. Some bites need stitches while others heal on their own. Rarely, bites from wild animals can lead to rabies, a life-threatening infection. Bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes cause most rabies cases.

What to Do

  • Wash the bite area with soap and water. If the bite is bleeding, put pressure on it using sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
  • If the bleeding has stopped, put antibiotic ointment on the area.
  • Cover the area with a bandage or sterile gauze.
  • If your child has pain, give acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Get Medical Care If:

  • The bite was from:
    • a wild or stray animal
    • a pet that isn't up-to-date on rabies shots
    • an animal that is acting strangely
  • The bite has broken the skin.
  • The bite is on the face, head, neck, hand, foot, or near a joint.
  • A bite or scratch becomes red, hot, swollen, or more painful.
  • Your child is behind on shots or has not had a tetanus shot within 5 years.

If your child needs treatment, have the following information on hand:

  • the kind of animal that bit your child
  • the date of the animal's last rabies vaccination, if known
  • any recent unusual behavior by the animal
  • the animal's location, if known
  • if the animal was a stray or wild, or was captured by a local animal control service
  • your child's immunization (shots) record
  • a list of any medicines your child is allergic to 


Bites from cats are more likely to cause infection because cat teeth are sharp and can cause deep puncture wounds, trapping bacteria below the skin. Cats also carry bacteria that can cause cat scratch disease.

Rabies is a viral infection carried by bats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks. These wild animals can infect domestic cats, dogs and livestock.

Rabies can be controlled with a vaccine when given soon after a bite. Left untreated, rabies can be fatal.


Signs of Infection

Bites can become infected even if the wound does not appear severe. Call your doctor right away, if you see any of the following signs of infection:

  • Swelling and redness around the bite area
  • Warmth at the wound site
  • Pain after 24 hours
  • Drainage from the wound
  • Red streaks on the skin spreading out from the bite
  • Swollen glands near the bite 
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Night sweats
  • Shakes

Treatment Options

When you seek immediate treatment for an animal bite, you reduce the risk of infection.

Your wound will be examined, and you’ll be asked about how the bite happened. A description of the animal and its behavior can help your care provider determine if you’re at risk of rabies. You’ll also be asked about your immunizations to check if you are up to date on tetanus shots.

Deep wounds or large wounds need careful cleaning and examination — sometimes by X-ray — to make sure no tooth fragments are left behind.

Other treatments may include:

  • Cleaning the wound with a special solution
  • Removing damaged tissue
  • An exam to check for nerve, tendon or bone damage
  • Checking for signs of infection
  • Stitches or sutures to close the wound
  • Antibiotics to prevent infection
  • Tetanus shots or rabies vaccine, if needed
  • A referral to a plastic or orthopedic surgeon to check and repair serious tissue or joint damage


Preventing Animal Bites

Take precautions to keep your family and pet safe from animal bites. This includes teaching your children to:

  • Be gentle with pets
  • Not put their face near a pet’s face
  • Leave pets alone when they are eating
  • Stay away from pets or animals that are fighting
  • Always ask a grown-up before approaching someone else’s pet
  • Avoid wild animals

Take time and choose your family pet carefully. Avoid aggressive animals and those that do not like children.

To keep you and your pet healthy and safe, follow these tips:

  • Keep your pet’s vaccinations up-to-date
  • Never leave a young child alone with a pet
  • Do not try to separate fighting animals
  • Keep your pets on a leash when in public
  • Avoid contact with animals that are sick 
  • Do not approach or play with wild animals
  • Supervise your pets to make sure they do not interact with wild animals
  • Report stray or wild animals to your animal control agency