Although any animal may bite, dogs and, to a lesser extent, cats account for most bites in the United States. Owing to their popularity as household pets, dogs account for the majority of bites as a result of protecting their owners and territory. About 10 to 20 people, mostly children, die from dog bites each year. Cats do not defend territory and bite mainly when humans restrain them or attempt to intervene in a cat fight. Domestic animals, such as horses, cows, and pigs, bite infrequently, but their size and strength are such that serious wounds may result. Wild animal bites are rare.
Dog bites typically have a ragged, torn appearance. Cat bites involve deep puncture wounds that frequently become infected. Infected bites are painful, swollen, and red. Rabies (see Brain Infections: Rabies) may be transmitted from animals (most commonly bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks) infected with that organism. Rabies is rare among pets in the United States because of vaccination. Squirrel, hamster, and rodent bites rarely transmit rabies.
After receiving routine first-aid treatment (see First Aid: Wounds), people who have been bitten by an animal should see a doctor immediately. If possible, the offending animal should be penned up by its owner. If the animal is loose, the person who has been bitten should not try to capture it. The police should be notified so that the proper authorities can observe the animal for signs of rabies.
Doctors clean an animal bite by flooding the wound with sterile salt water (saline) and cleansing it with soap and water. Sometimes tissue is trimmed from the edge of the bite wound, particularly if the tissue is crushed or ragged. Facial bite wounds are closed surgically (sutured). However, minor wounds, puncture wounds, and bite wounds to the hands are not closed. Antibiotics are sometimes given by mouth to prevent infection. Infected bites sometimes require surgical drainage, antibiotics given intravenously, or both.
Last full review/revision February 2009 by Robert A. Barish, MD, MBA