About 250,000 dog bites occur each year in the UK. Cat bites are less common. About 7 in 10 bites are caused by the owner's own pet or an animal known to them. Boys get bitten more than girls and the under-5s are mostly involved. This leaflet gives a guide as to what you should do following a bite. But, the take home message is that all but the most minor bites should probably be assessed and treated by a doctor or nurse - in particular, bites to hands.
You should clean the wound no matter how small the cut to the skin. There are many bacteria (germs) 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. (There is concern that antiseptics may damage skin tissue and delay healing.) 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.
This is for the following reasons:
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 dead skin is ideal for infection to develop. 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 bites in many parts of the body it is common practice to wait for a few days before closing the wound, particularly if the wound is more than six hours old or on an arm or leg. This is to make sure the wound is not infected before closing it up. A wound that becomes infected, which 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 a formal 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 in wounds which are large, deep, or punctured. A puncture wound may not look large but may go deep into the tissues. Antibiotics are also prescribed for small bite wounds in certain situations. For example, if:
Are you up to date with your tetanus immunisations? If not, you may need a booster dose.
This is a serious illness passed to humans from some animal bites. At present the UK is free from rabies. Animal bites (particularly dog bites) that occur abroad have a risk of rabies. When abroad, take seriously even the most tiny 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.
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 next few days. Rarely, some 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 fever (high temperature), shivers, or other worrying symptoms within a week or so after a dog or cat bite.