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animal bites

Alternative Names 

An injury that is the result of the flesh of a person being caught between the teeth of the upper and lower jaw of an animal. Animal bites do not include insect bites.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
The signs and symptoms of an animal bite can vary. The bite can look like a surface scratch with little or no break in the skin. An animal bite can bleed a little or a lot. The bite can tear or puncture the skin or create a major cut. There can also be crushing injuries with some animal bites.

What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
The most common animal bite is a dog bite. Cat bites are the second most common. Cat bites can be more serious because they produce puncture type wounds. Stray animals and wild animals, including bats, cause a number of bites each year. People with bat bites or scratches should seek medical advice immediately. Bats in Australia may be carrying lyssa virus, which produces a disease similar to rabies. It is wise to avoid close contact with any wild animal and not feed, pet, or get too close to the animals, particularly overseas where rabies may occur. Rabies does not occur in Australia.

What can be done to prevent the injury? 
The best way to prevent animal bites is to teach children not to approach any strange, stray or wild animal. Adults also should not approach any strange animal. Do not look any animal in the eye or approach the animal aggressively. Do not provoke or tease any animal. Extra caution should be taken around wild animals.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
There are three things to consider when treating animal bites:
  • stopping bleeding
  • preventing infection
  • preventing rabies
A person who has been bitten should seek medical advice from a doctor or health care professional if they have not had a tetanus Injection in the past 10 years. Medical help should also be sought if there is swelling, redness, pus, or bleeding around the wound. If there is bleeding, the wound may need stitches.

Emergency care should be sought immediately if there are serious injuries, the person is suffering from severe blood loss, significant flesh loss, or there are many bites. It is also important to seek emergency care if the person has been bitten by a strange animal. Proper authorities need to be notified and the animal will need to be confined and observed for rabies.

Latex gloves should be worn to prevent contamination of the wounds and any blood-borne illnesses from infecting the person caring for the wound. If not bleeding severely, the wound should be washed with mild, soapy water for 3 to 5 minutes and covered with a clean dressing. Bleeding should be controlled by applying direct pressure over the wound with a clean, dry cloth. Elevation of the area also helps control the bleeding. If the wound does not appear to need stitches, it should be observed for the next 24 to 48 hours for signs of infection such as redness, swelling, pain, or discharge. If the wound becomes infected, a doctor or health care professional should be consulted. Puncture wounds can become infected more readily than large tearing wounds.

Rabies is very rare but can be fatal. It is transmitted in the saliva of rabid animals. Animals that are known to carry rabies include bats and foxes. Pets that have not received rabies injections can also carry the rabies virus and transmit it to humans. There are two ways to tell if an animal has rabies. The first way is to capture the animal and observe it for 10 days. If the animal does not become sick in that time, it is not rabid. The second way is to destroy the animal and send its brain to a veterinarian or state health department for an examination. There is no cure for rabies once it has developed. It is possible, through vaccination, to develop immunity before the symptoms of rabies occur.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
With any wound, there are always the risks of infection and bleeding. In some cases, stitches are not used because the risk of infection is greater. All antibiotics, such as amoxicillin or cephalexin, used for treatment of infection can cause allergic reactions, gastrointestinal distress, and other side effects.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
Once the wound is healed, little treatment is needed. A person should avoid being in positions where they can be bitten, and should avoid approaching wild animals or aggressively approaching tame animals.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 14/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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