What are the possible complications?
Infection is common after dog and cat bites. Infection can be in or around the wound, causing redness or swelling. Or it may spread away from the original bite, to affect more areas of skin (cellulitis), or tissue nearby such as bone (osteomyelitis) or through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. Rarely, this can go on to cause infections of the brain (meningitis or encephalitis), or the heart (endocarditis), or throughout the body (sepsis).
In some countries where some animals have rabies, this is a risk after a bite from an unknown animal. Dogs are the most common carriers of the rabies infection.
On a more psychological level, animal bites can leave people with a phobia about that particular animal.
Rarely, animal bites can be fatal. This may occur if the bite involves a vital blood vessel and a lot of blood is lost. It may occur if there is widespread infection as mentioned above. It is a particular risk in small infants, whose skulls are soft, if they have a severe bite on the head. Of course the majority of bites are much more trivial than this.
What should I look out for after a dog or cat bite?
The most common complication following a bite is an infection of the wound. See a doctor as soon as possible if the skin surrounding a wound becomes more tender, painful, swollen, or inflamed over the following few days. Rarely, some germs (bacteria) can get into the bloodstream through a wound and cause a serious infection in the body. See a doctor urgently if you become generally unwell with a high temperature (fever), shivers, or other worrying symptoms within a week or so after a dog or cat bite.
Some people, particularly children, may become scared of dogs if they have been bitten. They may get nightmares, or become worried. To try to stop this, talk to them about what happened, and why, and help them learn to interact with pets safely. If they are still having problems, see a doctor.
Further reading and references
Bites - human and animal; NICE CKS, July 2015 (UK access only)
Ellis R, Ellis C; Dog and cat bites. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Aug 1590(4):239-43.
Morgan M, Palmer J; Dog bites. BMJ. 2007 Feb 24334(7590):413-7.
Abrahamian FM, Goldstein EJ; Microbiology of animal bite wound infections. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2011 Apr24(2):231-46. doi: 10.1128/CMR.00041-10.
Animal bites; World Health Organization (WHO) Fact sheet, February 2013
Controlling your dog in public; GOV.UK
Pasteurellosis: characteristics, diagnosis and management; Public Health England, May 2011
Dog bite prevention; American Vetinary Medical Association (AVMA)
Be safe with dogs; Blue Cross
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