How to Treat a Dog Bite

Military Working Dogs

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that more than 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. Of that 4.5 million, nearly half are children between the ages of 5-9. Furthermore, half of all cases involve an animal owned by the victim’s family or a neighbor. These statistics mean that household pets are more likely to bite than unfamiliar dogs and young children are at the greatest risk.

Preventing a Dog Bite

Both medical experts and dog trainers agree that dog bite prevention should focus on responsible pet ownership and education (source: American Academy of Pediatrics). The following resources can help you learn more about dog bite prevention:

Treating a Dog Bite

Most dogs never bite a human; however, in the rare chance you or a family member is bitten, you will need to treat the wound and/or seek medical assistance. The proper course of action depends on two factors: your familiarity with the dog and the severity of the bite.

Unfamiliar Dogs

If you are unfamiliar with the dog that has bitten you, you will need to seek medical assistance. Unfamiliar means any dog whose vaccination history is unknown. This could be a stray dog or even a neighbor’s pet (not all pet owners keep their pet’s vaccines current). The biggest concern when dealing with bites from unfamiliar dogs is the risk of becoming infected with rabies. Any bite that breaks the skin has the potential to infect the victim with rabies so seeking medical care in this instance is highly recommended.

Severity of the Bite

The proper course of treatment depends mostly on the severity of the bite. A superficial wound can usually be treated at home (unless the bite was from an unfamiliar dog). A serious wound will require immediate medical attention, especially if the dog is showing signs of an illness. For example, a rabid dog may act aggressively and seem to be partially paralyzed. In such a case, you will need to begin rabies vaccinations right away.

Superficial Wounds

A superficial scratch, scrape, or gash can usually be treated at home. First, clean the wound with warm water and a mild soap (soap optional). Next, clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol.  If there are puncture wounds, DO NOT use peroxide or alcohol as this can slow the healing. Finally, apply a topical antibiotic and cover the wound with a clean dry bandage. Be sure to apply a topical antibiotic everyday to prevent infection. Signs of infection include:

  • Redness and swelling around the bite
  • Fluid or pus leaking from the bite
  • Wound feels warm and/or more painful
  • Swollen lymph glands

If you are exhibiting any symptoms of infection you should seek immediate medical care. Left untreated, an infected wound can lead to blood poisoning, an infection of the inner lining of the heart, and an infection of outer layers of the brain.

If the skin has been broken, you may also be at risk of becoming infected with tetanus.  Tetanus is a potentially fatal infection that affects the nervous system and muscles. It is caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani.  Symptoms take about 4-21 days to appear and include muscles stiffness and spasms, especially in the jaw muscles. If you notice these symptoms, you must seek medical care.

Severe Wounds

If the bite is severe you will need to seek immediate medical care. For wounds that are actively bleeding, use a clean cloth to apply pressure and keep the wound elevated. The doctor will clean the wound, remove any dead tissue, stich the wound, and prescribe a 14-day course of antibiotics. In severe cases or cases that involve muscles or tendons, surgery may be required.


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