If you’ve been bitten by a dog, it’s important to tend to the injury right away to reduce your risk of bacterial infection. You also should assess the wound to determine the severity.
In some instances, you’ll be able to administer first aid to yourself. In other cases, you’ll need immediate medical treatment.
Whether the dog is yours or someone else’s, you may feel shaken after being bitten. If you need medical attention, call for help rather than driving yourself to the doctor or hospital.
Read on to learn the steps you should take following a dog bite, and what you can do to prevent infection.
Ask about the dog’s vaccination history
The first thing you should do following a dog bite is to put distance between yourself and the dog. That can eliminate the chances that you may be bitten again.
Once there’s no longer an immediate threat, it’s important to determine if the dog has been inoculated against rabies.
If the dog’s owner is nearby, ask for the dog’s vaccination history, making sure to get the owner’s name, telephone number, and veterinarian’s contact information. If possible, also ask to see some sort of ID.
If the dog is unaccompanied, ask anyone who witnessed the attack if they’re familiar with the dog and know where the owner lives.
Of course, it’s also possible to be bitten by your own dog. For this reason, make sure to keep up with your dog’s rabies inoculations. Even a friendly, gentle animal may sometimes bite.
Administer first aid
The type of first aid you administer will be determined by the severity of the bite.
If your skin wasn’t broken, wash the area with warm water and soap. You can also apply an antibacterial lotion to the area as a precaution.
If your skin was broken, wash the area with warm soap and water and gently press on the wound to promote a small amount of bleeding. This will help flush out germs.
If the bite is already bleeding, apply a clean cloth to the wound and gently press down to stop the flow. Follow up with an application of antibacterial lotion and cover with a sterile bandage.
All dog bite wounds, even minor ones, should be monitored for signs of infection until they’re completely healed.
Check the bite often to see if it becomes:
- tender to the touch
If the wound gets worse, you feel pain, or develop a fever, see a doctor immediately.
- Wash the wound with soap and warm water.
- Gently press a clean cloth over the wound to stop the flow of blood.
- Apply an antibacterial ointment to the wound.
- Cover with a sterile bandage.
- Watch for signs of infection.
- Seek help if you suspect infection or possible exposure to rabies, or if the wound is severe.
When to seek help
Dog bites require medical treatment.
Always see a doctor for a dog bite that:
- is caused by a dog with an unknown rabies vaccine history, or by a dog that’s acting erratically or appears to be sick
- doesn’t stop bleeding
- causes intense pain
- exposes bone, tendons, or muscle
- causes loss of function, such as an inability to bend fingers
- looks red, swollen, or inflamed
- leaks pus or fluid
Also seek medical attention if you:
- do not remember when you had your last tetanus shot
- feel weak, disoriented, or faint
- are running a fever
What are possible complications from a dog bite?
Dog bites can cause several complications. These include infections, rabies, nerve or muscle damage, and more.
Bacteria can live in any dog’s mouth, including:
Dogs may also carry MRSA, but there have been no current reports of it being transmitted via dog bite.
These germs can cause bacterial infections if the dog bite breaks the skin.
The risk of infection may be greater in people with weakened immune systems or people with diabetes. If you’ve been bitten by a dog and notice signs of infection, see a doctor.
Nerve and muscle damage
A deep bite can cause damage to nerves, muscles, and blood vessels under the skin. This can occur even if the wound appears to be small, like from puncture marks.
A bite from a large dog may result in broken, splintered, or fractured bones, especially in the legs, feet, or hands.
Always seek emergency medical help if you suspect a broken bone.
Rabies is a serious viral condition that affects the central nervous system. Left untreated, it can lead to death within a few days of infection.
Seek immediate medical attention if you’ve been bitten by a dog and you aren’t sure of their vaccination history or know that they’re not up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations.
Tetanus is a bacterial disease. It’s uncommon in the United States where vaccines are routinely provided to children. Adults should get a tetanus booster shot every 10 years.
If a dog bite tears the skin, it can cause scarring to occur. In many instances, the appearance of mild scarring will lessen over time.
Severe scarring, or scars which occur in visible areas such as the face, can be reduced through medical techniques such as grafting or plastic surgery.
The number of deaths due to dog bites in the United States annually is very low. When they occur, about 70 percent of deaths related to dog bites happen to children younger than 10 years old.
ASK A DOCTOR NOW
Do you need a rabies shot?
If you’re bitten by a dog that shows signs of rabies, such as acting erratically or foaming at the mouth, you should get a rabies vaccine.
Rabies is a potentially fatal condition, which is 100 percent preventable when immediate medical treatment is received.
Rabies in humans is rare in the United States and not typically transmitted by dogs, thanks to widespread inoculation and prevention programs.
If you or your doctor have any concerns that you might have contracted rabies through a dog bite, getting a rabies post-exposure vaccine makes sense.
The vaccine is given as a series of four injections, over the course of several weeks. An additional injection of rabies immune globulin is also required as part of the treatment.
How to prevent infection
Dog bites can introduce dangerous bacteria into the body. This can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections to occur when left untreated.
It’s very important to wash the wound as soon as you’re bitten and to use topical antibiotics, such as povidone iodine, in and around broken skin.
Keep the wound covered and change bandages daily.
Keep an eye on the wound for signs of infection. Depending on the type of infection, symptoms can start appearing within 24 hours up to 14 days after being bitten.
Infections can spread quickly throughout the body. If you notice signs of infection, see your doctor right away. You may need oral or intravenous antibiotics.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for you, you’ll probably take them for 1 to 2 weeks. Do not stop taking your medication even if the infection appears to subside completely.
Dog bites can be scary and, when left untreated, can also cause serious complications.
Bacterial infections are a common complication from dog bites and it’s important to get any sign of infection looked at promptly.
Inoculating your own dog for rabies and staying away from unknown dogs is your best defense against dog bites and their complications. Never approach a dog you don’t know, no matter how adorable they may look.
Also avoid roughhousing or playing aggressively with dogs, including those you know. It also makes sense to “let sleeping dogs lie,” and to never disturb a dog that’s eating or caring for puppies.