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Dog, cat and bat bites

5-minute read

Being bitten is a common cause of injury. Any animal can bite, including pets, wild animals and humans. The most common types of animal bite are dog and cat bites.

Usually bites are minor, but infections can occur if the skin is broken and bacteria from the saliva (spit) of the animal that has bitten you is passed into your bloodstream.

Bites often result in the following types of injury.

Bites can be very painful and uncomfortable. You should also pay close attention for signs of an infection developing.

Signs of an infection include:

  • swelling
  • redness
  • increasing tenderness around the bite
  • the wound gets more painful
  • discharge from the wound
  • swollen lymph nodes (especially in the neck, armpits or groin)
  • shivers or developing a high temperature (over 38°C ).

Learn more about bacterial infections, such as tetanus, and how to treat minor wounds or cuts from bites in the ‘Treatment and self-care’ section below.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Dog bites

Most dog bites are caused either by a family pet or a dog that belongs to someone you know, such as a neighbour. Dogs can bite anybody, but children under 5 are most at risk.

A dog can bite if it:

  • is provoked, stressed or frightened
  • is looking after puppies and gets disturbed
  • is unwell or in pain
  • is disturbed while eating or asleep
  • becomes too excited during play
  • is young.

Bites from dogs typically cause a puncture wound in the skin, as well as lacerations (jagged cuts) and abrasions (scrapes or grazes).

Young children are more likely to be bitten on the head, neck and face – around the lips, cheek or nose. Dog bites can lead to infection and scarring.

Cat bites

Cat bites usually cause only minor injuries but they tend to increase the risk of an infection developing. However, because cats have smaller and sharper teeth they can cause very deep puncture wounds, which can sometimes go right down to the bone.

Cat bites generally occur on the upper limbs (arms and hands) but children may also be bitten on the face and neck.

Learn more about bacterial infections, such as tetanus, or how to treat minor wounds or cuts from bites in the ‘Treatment and self-care’ section below.

Bat bites

Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) belongs to a group of viruses known as lyssaviruses. ABLV is transmitted from bats to humans, but is very rare. Only 3 cases of ABLV have been recorded since the virus was first identified in 1996. All 3 were in Queensland and were fatal.

The early symptoms are flu-like, including headache, fever and fatigue.

The best way to prevent yourself from being exposed to ABLV is to avoid handling any bat in Australia. Only people who have been vaccinated against ABLV and who have been trained in the care of bats should ever handle bats or flying foxes.

Anyone who comes across an injured bat should contact the local WIRES wildlife rescue network on 1300 094 737.

If you are bitten or scratched by a bat in Australia you should:

  • immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for at least 5 minutes
  • apply an antiseptic solution or alcohol gel after washing
  • see your doctor – you may need a tetanus injection or other treatment.

Treatment and self-care

Preventing infection

Most of the time you won't need routine antibiotics to prevent an infection after a human or animal bite. However you should see your doctor and ask about antibiotics if you have:

  • a deep puncture wound (especially wounds due to a cat bite)
  • have been bitten close to a bone or joint (especially prosthetic joints)
  • problems with healing or with circulation
  • bites to the face or genital area
  • problems with your immune system

Tetanus

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that releases toxins into the blood stream and can be fatal. If you have been bitten by an animal and the skin is broken, your healthcare professional may recommend that you have a tetanus booster injection.

Treating minor wounds or cuts from bites

You can easily treat a minor wound or cut. However, a larger or more serious wound or cut will need medical attention.

A wound or cut is considered to be deep if tendons or other internal parts can be seen. A gaping wound is one where the edges of the cut cannot be pulled back together.

If the wound is still bleeding:

  • cover it with a clean cloth, apply pressure with the palm of your hand, then keep the pressure on the wound for 15 minutes
  • apply pressure directly over the affected area with a pad made from a clean, rolled up piece of material such as a handkerchief or towel; the material should be dampened with clean water if possible since this will reduce the amount of blood soaked up
  • use a bandage to wrap around the pad or dressing; do not wrap the bandage too tightly since it may affect the circulation
  • if the bleeding is very heavy, it may seep through the bandage; you should use a second dressing to cover the first one
  • if the bleeding continues through both bandages and pads, remove the second bandage only and apply a new one
  • do not look at the wound to see if it has stopped bleeding in case removing the pressure causes it to start bleeding again.

If the wound is not bleeding:

  • rinse under running water for 2 minutes (it might be easier for you to rinse the injury with a shower head, if possible); pat dry with a clean cloth, then cover the wound with a dry, sterile, non-sticky dressing to help prevent infection
  • check the area daily for signs of infection such as increasing pain, redness, swelling or yellow discharge
  • if you have not had a full course of tetanus immunisation, or if your boosters are not up to date, contact your doctor.
  • if you are in pain, get advice from a pharmacist or doctor on medicines you can take.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about an animal bite, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2017

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