An animal bite can be dangerous if left untreated because bacteria can enter the wound, leading to infection.
In some cases, a person can prevent infection from an animal bite. Early care, including cleaning the wound, using antibiotic creams, and regularly changing any bandages, can help prevent infection.
Bites that do not break the skin will not become infected. Bites that cause a minor scrape or scratch have a minimal risk of infection. If the bite causes a cut, the person is at a higher risk of developing an infection. However, the highest risk of infection follows a puncture wound, which is common from a cat bite.
However, anyone who sustains a bite from any animal should get a tetanus vaccine if not up to date.
Keep reading for more information on animal bite infections, including symptoms to look out for, treatments, and possible complications.
Animal bites can lead to a variety of symptoms, including:
These symptoms typically appear on or around the area of the bite but will not develop immediately.
If a person develops any symptoms of infection that last longer than a day, they should talk to their doctor, as this could suggest the infection is worsening.
A person may experience additional symptoms if the infection worsens. These can include:
- tenderness at or near the bite
- oozing liquid or pus from the bite
- loss of mobility in the hand or fingers
- swollen lymph nodes
- trouble breathing
- numbness around the bite
- red streaks around the bite
- night sweats
- weak muscles or tremors
A person experiencing any of these symptoms should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment to prevent the infection from spreading further.
Bites can vary significantly according to the type of animal and severity of the bite. Some of the most common types of bites come from:
- wild animals
A person is more likely to sustain a bite from a pet than from a wild animal.
Cats have long, thin, and sharp fangs. When they bite, they can cause small, deep puncture wounds. Bacteria may become trapped in the skin as the small hole heals over, causing infection.
An infection may require further treatment, such as antibiotics or tetanus shots.
Approximately 50% of cat bites lead to infection in people. Because a cat bite often causes a deeper wound, it is more likely to result in an infection of deeper tissues.
Dog bites are common in the United States. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, over 5 million people report animal bites each year. Of that number, 90% are due to dog bites. However, only 10 to 15% of dog bites become infected.
Dogs are most likely to bite if they are overexcited, scared, or injured. Any breed of dog, regardless of its temperament, may bite a person.
Wild animal bites
Wild animal bites are not very common compared to domestic animal bites. Some of the most likely animals to bite someone include bats, raccoons, wild dogs, and foxes.
One of the concerns of a wild animal bite is the risk of the animal carrying rabies. A person should seek medical attention for any wild animal bite that breaks the surface of the skin.
Anyone who receives an animal bite should start treatment within minutes of the bite. The first steps in treating the wound include:
- thoroughly cleaning the wound with soap and water
- applying a bandage
If the wound is small and not the result of a wild animal bite, a person may not need to seek medical attention right away. Instead, they should keep the wound clean and check for signs of infection. If any signs of infection develop, talk to a doctor right away.
For deeper wounds, apply pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding. Once the bleeding is under control, apply a clean bandage to the wound. Seek medical attention immediately if the bite wound is deep. A doctor will stitch the wound closed if necessary.
A person should also seek medical attention immediately following any bite from a wild animal.
If an infection develops, the typical treatment is oral antibiotics. For more severe cases, a person may require intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Also, a doctor may order a tetanus shot.
In some instances, a doctor may recommend prophylactic antibiotics. A doctor will prescribe these drugs if they think the person is at high risk of developing an infection. This is more likely if the bite is on a person’s hand, face, or near a joint.
The length of time a person has to take antibiotics can vary based on the type of bite, other health issues, and the severity of the bite. A doctor will likely schedule a follow-up visit a few days after diagnosis to ensure the treatment is effective.
Animal bites have the potential of causing complications. If the animal that bites the person shows signs of illness, a person should let their doctor know as soon as possible. Three possible complications include:
Rabies is a viral infection that is usually fatal once symptoms develop. If a doctor is concerned that a person may have contracted rabies from an animal bite, they will treat them immediately with prophylactic rabies vaccine and immune globulin.
However, rabies is rare in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are just 1–3 cases of rabies per year.
Tetanus is a severe bacterial infection that can cause symptoms such as:
- trouble swallowing
- stiff neck
- body spasms
There is no cure for tetanus, but the condition is not very common due to vaccinations. According to the CDC, an adult should get a tetanus shot every 10 years.
Treatment for tetanus includes tetanus immune globulin and wound care. If a person presents with a dirty or contaminated wound, a doctor will recommend a tetanus jab if the person’s last one was more than 5 years ago.
Blood or bone infections
If left untreated, an infected animal bite can lead to potentially fatal blood or bone infections. A doctor will check for symptoms of this during an examination if they suspect a person may be at risk.
A person should see their doctor for an animal bite if they show signs of infection. They should also see their doctor if inflammation and pain around the bite persist after a day or two.
A person should seek immediate medical attention if a wild animal bites them. A wild animal may carry rabies, which is a life-threatening disease that requires immediate treatment. Domestic dogs can also carry rabies, but this is rare in the U.S.
If a person sees their doctor for an animal bite, their doctor may ask questions about the incident, what kind of animal it was, and other information pertinent to the bite. A doctor will then perform a physical examination of the wound to look for signs of infection.
If the doctor has concerns about more severe infections, they may order additional tests. For example, they may order an X-ray to examine the bones for signs of infection, or a blood test to check for signs of sepsis. If they are concerned that the person may be at risk of rabies, they will treat it immediately with prophylactic antibiotics.
A person should take all animal bites seriously. The first step to preventing infection is to clean and bandage the wound. A person should seek medical attention if the bite is from a wild animal or is deep enough that it may require stitches.
It is important to check the bite regularly for signs of infection. If a person sees or feels symptoms of infection, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible to help prevent further complications.