What should I do immediately?
You should clean the wound no matter how small the cut to the skin. There are many germs (bacteria) in animal mouths. Cleaning will reduce the chance of infection. If the wound is small, you can clean it yourself. Just use ordinary tap water. Let it bleed freely, unless the bleeding is very heavy. If the wound is bleeding heavily, use a clean pad, or preferably a sterile dressing, to apply pressure until you can get medical treatment. Wounds that are large, deep, punctured or dirty are best cleaned and assessed by a nurse or doctor.
After cleaning, cover the wound with a sterile, non-sticky dressing. Consider going to see your doctor, or attending A&E. (See the section on "When to seek medical advice".)
What treatment might I need from a doctor or hospital?
The wound can be properly assessed and cleaned. If part of the wound has dead or damaged skin then it may need to be trimmed or removed. This is because infection is more likely to develop in dead skin. So, if in doubt, see a doctor or go to your local accident and emergency department.
Do not be surprised if the doctor does not stitch or close up a dog or cat wound immediately. For many bites it is safer to let them heal on their own. For some bites in some parts of the body it is common practice to wait for a few days before closing the wound. This is particularly the case if the wound is more than six hours old. This is to make sure the wound is not infected before closing it up. A wound that becomes infected after it has been stitched or closed up, can cause serious complications. After the wound is cleaned (and trimmed of dead or damaged tissue, where necessary), a sterile dressing is normally applied.
Large, severe or deep bites may require an operation to clean the wound and repair underlying structures that may be damaged, such as tendons.
A short course of antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent infection developing. The antibiotic usually used is called co-amoxiclav. There will be alternatives if you are allergic to penicillin antibiotics, but you may need to take more than one if this is the case. Antibiotics are prescribed for bite wounds to prevent infection in certain situations. For example, if:
- You have been bitten by a cat. All cat bites are usually treated with antibiotics, as they are much more likely to get infected than dog bites.
- The bite wound is on an arm or leg - especially a hand. These sites are particularly prone to nasty infections that can cause severe damage after a dog or cat bite.
- The wound is large, deep or punctured. A puncture wound may not look large but may go deep into the tissues.
- Your injury needed an operation to clean it out or to repair the damage.
- Your resistance to infection is low. For example, if you are on chemotherapy; have no working spleen; have diabetes; have an immune system problem such as AIDS.
- You have an artificial heart valve (and sometimes, if you have an artificial joint).
Antibiotics will also be prescribed if your wound has already become infected. It might be infected if:
- It is getting more painful rather than improving as time goes by.
- It has become red or swollen.
- It is oozing.
Are you up to date with your tetanus immunisations? If not, you may need a booster dose.
Rabies is a very serious illness passed to humans from some animal bites. At present the UK is free from rabies. However, animal bites (particularly dog bites) that occur abroad have a risk of rabies. When abroad, take seriously even the tiniest of dog bites, or a lick from a dog over a cut or wound. If needed, treatment straight after a bite can prevent rabies from developing. It is important that the treatment should be given quickly, so see a doctor as soon as possible.
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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