2001 Articles

It’s A Bite!

Those of us who share our lives with dogs will likely have to deal with a bite at some point in time. Whether it is caused by our dog, someone else’s dog, the cat we try to rescue from a dog, or wild animal bites ~ these injuries pose serious hazards to whoever is on the receiving end.

It is estimated that between one and two million animal bites are experienced by humans in the United States each year. Most of these and bites are minor and can be treated with first aid. However, even small bites can pose tremendous hazards if the animal is rabid, a tendon, bone, joint, or nerve is punctured or infection sets in.

Dog Bites

It is estimated that the jaws of a large dog can exert more than 450 lbs. of pressure per square inch. This force can result in and a crushing injury to the tissues along with cuts or lacerations, avulsions (peeling away of the skin) and puncture wounds. The majority of dog bites involve children under the age of 19 who are usually bitten on the face or scalp. Adults are usually bitten on arms legs or hands. It is estimated that 15 to 20% dog bites will become infected. Usually, signs of infection will be apparent eight to 24 hours after the bite. These signs may include pain, swelling, redness, and purulent drainage. Given the normal bacteria that live in a dog’s mouth, the wound is usually contaminated with both aerobic (requiring Oxygen for life) and anaerobic (organisms that live in airless environments) germs. Because the anaerobic organisms are relatively slow to grow and oftentimes found deep in the wound, the wound may be left open to assure healing.

Cat Bites

Although cat bites don’t involve the crushing force of dog bites, the risk of infection is it significantly higher. More than half of cat bite is will become infected. Additionally, because of the shape of the sharp feline tooth, cat bites are more likely to penetrate bones, joints or nerves. Osteomyelitis (an infection in the bone) is more common in cat bites. Cat-scratch fever is also a hazard of cat bites and scratches.

Wild Animal Bites and Rabies

The physical trauma related to wild animal bites will depend upon the size of the animal. The major concern with wild animals is the risk of rabies. It is important to try to capture or kill the animal for analysis to determine whether or not is rabid. The last confirmed it dog rabies case in the United States occurred over 50 years ago. Dog owners participating in vaccination programs have significantly reduced the risk of exposure to rabies. However, cats are less frequently vaccinated and pose a greater risk of transmitting rabies than dogs. Washingtonian’s greatest risk for exposure to rabies is through bites from raccoons and bats. A bat transmitted the only death in Washington State in the past decade from rabies.

Initial First Aid

The first step in providing first aid to the bite victims is to assure their immediate safety and eliminate any additional biting trauma. Either remove the victim or the animal from the situation that has provoked the biting. Next, clean the wound by flushing it with liberal amounts of saline and stanch the bleeding. Mild bleeding can aid in cleaning the wound, but if there is obvious hemorrhaging, pressure needs to be applied to stop the bleeding.

If the wound is minor and bleeding stops quickly, evaluate the bite location. There is any chance of bone joint or nerve has been penetrated seek immediate medical assistance. Apply a light bandage, elevate and immobilize the wound if in an extremity and assess for signs or symptoms of infection every few hours.

If the vaccination status of the animal is unknown, if there are any signs and symptoms of infection, if the wounded continues to bleed or is bleeding vigorously, or if you suspect a joint, bone nerve has been penetrated immediate medical attention is required. Antibiotic treatment may be indicated but it is important to have laboratory tests conducted to assure the correct antibiotic is prescribed for the appropriately length of time. Tetanus immunization may also be indicated.

When seeking medical attention, it is important to bring information about the animal that bit including its behavior at the time of the biting. Also the health-care provider will need information on the victims health history including allergies and any condition that may compromise their immune system.

As with any accident, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Animal bites are extremely painful due to the crushing injury and swelling and become more so if infected. They can also be very expensive in terms of medical treatment and lost time from work. Try to avoid situations where your extremities are vulnerable. Do not break up a fight between two biting animals bare handed. Use blankets thrown over the animals, high-pressure water hoses, plastic poles or bats or assistance in grabbing the back legs of both fighting animals and segregating them in crates or behind closed doors.

Although it’s good advice not to bite the hand that feeds you, it does happen. Hopefully, this information can guide you in helping yourself or your furry companion if the target of a bite.


Bower, M.G. (2001) Managing Dog, Cat and Human Bite Wounds. The Nurse Practitioner, April, 2001