Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Animal Bites


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jul 2021| Content last modified Jul 2021
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Most animal bites in the United States are from dogs and cats:

  • Dog bites usually leave ragged, torn skin

  • Cat bites are deep puncture wounds that often become infected

Bites from wild animals and domestic animals (like horses, cows, and pigs) are rare. Bites from large animals can seriously hurt you. Bites from small animals can give you an infection.

What should I do if I get bitten by an animal?

You should take care of your wound and then get help:

  • Clean your wound with lots of soap and water

  • Don't put alcohol, iodine, or any other kind of antiseptics on your wound

  • Stop any bleeding—firmly press down on your wound with a clean cloth

  • Go to a doctor right away

What problems do animal bites cause?

  • Animal bites can become infected

  • An infected bite is painful, swollen, and red

  • Rarely, bites from some animals can give you rabies

Rabies is a deadly virus you can get from an animal bite. The animal has to have rabies before it can give you rabies. Not all animals can get rabies.

In the United States, pets are usually vaccinated against rabies, so rabies in pets is rare. Rabies is more likely in certain wild animals, such as bats, raccoons, skunks, or foxes. Rabies is usually not a concern with bites from rabbits, squirrels, hamsters, rats, and mice.

If you are bitten by an animal, you should call your doctor or go immediately to a hospital. The doctor will decide whether you need rabies shots.

How do doctors treat an animal bite?

Doctors will:

  • Flush out the inside of the wound with sterile saline (germ-free salt water)

  • Cut any torn skin away from the edge of the wound

  • Close the wound with stitches, if needed

  • Give you medicine to prevent infection

  • Give you a tetanus shot, if needed

How can I prevent a dog bite?

  • Never leave a baby or young child alone with a dog

  • Don’t disturb dogs when they're eating or resting

  • Ask a dog’s owner before petting the dog

  • Stay calm if a dog comes toward you, and hold still or back away slowly

  • Do not try to separate dogs that are fighting

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