An estimated 4.7 million dog bites and 400,000 cat bites occur annually in the United States. Although it is commonly thought that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s and less likely to cause infection, dogs, cats, as well as humans all harbor bacteria that can cause infection. This is one of the main reasons why treatment of a dog or cat bite (or human for that matter) should be dealt with promptly.
Which is worse, a dog or a cat bite? The types of injuries inflicted by dogs and cats differ considerably. Dogs, with stronger jaws and relatively dull teeth, create shallower wounds or crushing-type injuries. Cats, on the other hand, have sharp teeth that produce puncture wounds. Bacteria from the cat’s mouth may be deposited in the bottom of these punctures that can be difficult to remove with washing. This sets the stage for an infection, potentially affecting deeper structures such as bones, tendons, or joints. While both dogs and cats can inflict serious injuries, cat bites are much more susceptible to becoming infected.
What should one do if bitten by a dog or cat? For most dog or cat bites, taking the following steps will help to ensure an uneventful outcome:
- If the wound is bleeding, apply direct pressure with a clean, dry cloth until the bleeding stops.
- Wash the area of the bite with soap and water as soon as possible. Scrub the wound for several minutes in order to remove as much of the bacteria-containing saliva as possible.
- Following cleansing with soap and water, rinse with an antiseptic, such as hydrogen peroxide or iodine solution. Once the wound is dry, apply an antibiotic ointment and gauze dressing.
- Following the steps above, it is best to seek medical attention right away for bites on the face, neck or hands, or for large or deep bite wounds.
- Request proof of rabies vaccination if the dog’s owner is present. If a pet’s immunizations are not current, report the incident to the animal control department and arrange for the pet to be observed for the next 10 days to check for rabies. If bitten by a stray or unvaccinated animal that could have rabies, consideration should be given to starting anti-rabies treatment immediately.
- If needed, get a tetanus shot. The general recommendation is to receive a tetanus booster every 10 years. If a person has not had a tetanus shot in 5 years, however, a tetanus booster is usually recommended within 24 hours of a break in the skin, such as a dog or cat bite.
- Observe the wound for several days, checking for signs of infection. These include warmth around the wound, swelling, redness, pain, and discharge of pus. If bites become infected, treatment with a prescription antibiotic may be needed.
What kinds of infections are caused by dog or cat bites? Pasteurella bacteria, present in the mouths of dogs and cats, are responsible for most bite-associated infections. Typically, these infections develop within a day or two after the bite and involve the skin and subcutaneous tissue in the area of the bite. Other secondary infections of dog and cat bites are due to Strep or Staph bacteria. Bites to the hand are particularly bothersome since there is less blood circulation in these areas making it harder for the body to fight infection. The most serious bite-associated infection is rabies. Rabies is a viral infection that can be transmitted by an infected animal through bites or scratches. Fortunately, rabies in humans has become rare with an average of only five cases being reported annually. If suspected, injections of the rabies vaccine are given as soon as possible following the bite to prevent the disease from developing.
Can the risk of dogs biting humans be reduced? The American Veterinary Medical Association offers the following suggestions to help dog owners minimize the risk of their dog biting someone:
- Carefully select your pet. Puppies should not be obtained on impulse.
- Make sure your pet is socialized as a young puppy so it feels at ease around people and other animals.
- Don’t put your dog in a position where it feels threatened or teased.
- Train your dog. The basic commands “sit,” “stay,” “no,” and “come” help dogs understand what is expected of them and can be incorporated into fun activities that build a bond of trust between pets and people.
- Walk and exercise your dog regularly to keep it healthy and provide mental stimulation.
- Avoid highly excitable games like wrestling or tug-of-war.
- Use a leash in public to ensure you are able to control your dog.
- Keep your dog healthy. Have your dog vaccinated against rabies and preventable infectious diseases. Parasite control and other health care are important because how your dog feels affects how it behaves.
- Neuter your pet
- If you have a fenced yard, make sure the gates are secure.