Symptoms and Signs of Animal Bites

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 1/10/2022

Doctor's Notes on Animal Bites

Animal bites may occur from many different types of animals such as dogs, cats, hamsters, raccoons, ferrets, and squirrels. Bites are from the family pet are common. Most states require animal bites to be reported which can be important in rabies cases to help officials track and monitor a possible spread of the disease. Animal bites should be treated by a medical professional to minimize the risk of infection. There may also be broken or embedded teeth (cats) or other foreign material in the wound that needs to be cleaned, possible underlying nerve and blood vessel damage, a risk of tetanus if the person's immunizations are not up to date, and a possible risk of rabies, depending on the animal and circumstances of the bite.

If an animal bite is not medically treated, the wound may become infected which may indicate there is infection or debris still in the wound (such as teeth, clothes, or dirt). Symptoms of an infected animal bite include

  • redness at or around the bite site,
  • swelling,
  • pus drainage from the wound,
  • increasing pain,
  • localized warmth at the bite site,
  • red streaks leading away from the site of the bite, and
  • fever.

What Is the Treatment for Animal Bites?

Animal bites can be very dangerous and present a high risk for serious infections. Anyone who gets bitten by an animal should seek medical care. Treatment of animal bites includes:

  • Cleanse the wound thoroughly with soap and freshwater as quickly as possible
  • Use direct pressure to stop bleeding, bandage the wound with clean gauze if available, and immobilize the extremity injured if possible 
  • Medical providers will further clean and access the wound
    • Some wounds should not be closed with stitches or glue and will need to be monitored closely for healing
  • Oral or intravenous (IV) antibiotics are used for contaminated or high-risk wounds to prevent infection 
  • Some animal bites (feral dogs or cats, bats, other land mammals) may require rabies prophylaxis
  • Tetanus vaccine booster may also be recommended
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) may be used to relieve pain

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.