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Animal Bites

Animal bites can be frightening, and in some cases, are medical emergencies. The most common animal bites in the United States are from household pets, with dogs and cats causing the most injury. Cat bites and scratches are especially prone to infection. Human or animal bites can become infected or transmit illnesses such as rabies. A tetanus shot may be required if you have not had one within 10 years; if you are not sure when you had your last tetanus shot, and you’ve been bitten, you should get one within 72 hours after your injury.

If bitten, but the bleeding is minor, cleanse and treat the wound as you would a minor wound. Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment (unless the person has allergies or sensitivities to antibiotics) and cover with a clean bandage.

If the bite creates a deep puncture or the skin is badly torn and bleeding, apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding and get medical attention right away. If you develop a fever or other signs of infection — swelling, redness, pain, a bad smell or fluid draining from the area — see a physician immediately.

If an animal acts strangely and bites you, go to an emergency department or see your doctor immediately, because the animal may have rabies. This is especially true for bats, skunks, raccoons and foxes. If possible, capture the animal, if it is safe to do so, so it can be checked for rabies, which is fatal in humans if left untreated. If the animal is dead, wear gloves or use a shovel to move it into a plastic bag. Do not damage the animal’s head, since rabies testing is done on the brain, and do not freeze the animal. Clean the area and any tools used to remove the animal with a bleach solution. Some people avoid seeking treatment, because they fear it will involve a series of painful shots to the abdomen. This used to be true, but a simpler, less painful treatment is now involved.

Strange animal behavior may be a sign of rabies and typically includes an unprovoked attack. For example, if normally shy nocturnal (night) animals bite during the day, they may be infected. Rabies is rare in dogs, cats, rodents and plant-eating animals. Other signs of rabies in animals include drooling, running in circles, appearing paralyzed or exhibiting unusual or aggressive behaviors.

A tetanus shot may be required if you have not had one within 10 years or if you are unsure of when you last had one. Tetanus is a bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and is often fatal. Although most people are aware that stepping on a rusty nail or a puncture wound can cause a tetanus infection, most people do not know that tetanus bacteria can also enter the body even through a tiny pinprick, a scratch from an animal, splinters, bug bites and even burns that break the skin.


Anyone who thinks they're having a medical emergency should not hesitate to seek care. Federal law ensures that anyone who comes to the emergency department is treated and stabilized, and that their insurance provides coverage based on symptoms, not a final diagnosis. 

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