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Dog, cat and bat bites

12-minute read

Key facts

  • Dog and cat bites are the most frequent type of animal bite.
  • Infections can occur if your skin is broken by an animal bite.
  • Unless you are trained, vaccinated and wearing protective clothing, you should avoid handling bats or flying foxes in Australia.
  • If you have been, or think you may have been, bitten or scratched by a bat — seek immediate medical attention.
  • Talk to your doctor about your risk of rabies at least one month before you go on an overseas trip.

Are animal bites serious?

Animal bites are a common cause of injury. Dog and cat bites are the most frequent type of animal bite. But any animal, including your pets, farm animals, native animals — and even humans — can bite you.

Dog or cat bites are usually minor. Infections can occur if your skin is broken by an animal bite.

If you are bitten and the skin is broken, seek medical advice immediately to avoid developing tetanus.

You should avoid handling bats or flying foxes in Australia unless you are:

  • trained in their care
  • vaccinated
  • wearing protective gloves

If you have been, or think you may have been, bitten or scratched by a bat — get immediate medical attention.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What are the symptoms of animal bites?

Animal bites can be very painful or uncomfortable. They often result in these types of injuries:

Dog bites

Most dog bites are caused either by a family pet or a dog that belongs to someone you know.

Dogs can bite anybody. However, the following people are most at risk:

  • children under 5 years
  • males
  • those in households with dogs

Children are more likely to be bitten on the head, neck and face.

A dog may 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 sleeping
  • becomes too excited during play
  • is young

Male, unsterilised dogs are more likely to bite than other dogs.

Dog bites typically cause:

  • a puncture wound to your skin
  • lacerations (jagged cuts)
  • abrasions (scrapes or grazes)

Up to 1 in 4 dog bites become infected. This is more likely to happen if you have:

  • a deep wound
  • a puncture injury
  • crush wounds
  • wounds on your hands

These can lead to infection and scarring.

Cat bites

Cat bites usually cause only minor injuries. The chance of infection with cat bites is higher than with dog bites. About 1 in 2 people who go to the emergency department with a cat bite have an infected wound.

This is because cats have small and sharp teeth that can cause very deep puncture wounds. The wound can sometimes go right down to the bone. It is difficult to tell how deep the wound is. For puncture wounds, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Cat bites generally happen on your arms and hands. Children may also be bitten on their face and neck.

Human bites

Human bite wounds happen most often to the hands.

Bat bites

If you have been, or think you may have been, bitten or scratched by a bat — get immediate medical attention.

You should not touch bats in Australia. Microbats and flying foxes should only be touched by people who have:

  • been vaccinated against Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV)
  • been trained in the care of bats
  • are wearing personal protective clothing

If you find an injured bat, call WIRES wildlife rescue on 1300 094 737.

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

  • wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for at least 5 minutes
  • put on an antiseptic solution or alcohol gel after washing
  • get urgent medical attention to care for your wound and to get vaccinated against Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV)

If you are bitten, you will need to be vaccinated against Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) within 48 hours. Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) is like rabies. It can be transmitted from bats to humans.

There is no treatment for ABLV once symptoms have started.

When should I see my doctor?

After an animal bite, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. They may give you antibiotics to prevent an infection. This is more likely if you have:

  • a deep puncture wound
  • been bitten by a cat
  • been bitten close to a bone or joint
  • bites on your hands, feet, face, or genital area
  • problems with your immune system

You can easily treat a minor wound or cut at home and with your doctor’s support.

A larger or more serious wound — such as a deep or gaping wound —needs to be seen at the hospital.

Generally, a wound or cut is considered deep if tendons or other internal parts can be seen. However, cat bites are deep and narrow.

A gaping wound is one where the edges of the cut cannot be pulled back together.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How are animal bites treated?

Your treatment will depend on:

  • the type of animal that bit you
  • your vaccination status
  • any signs of infection

You can take care of some animal bites yourself. You may need medical attention if the wound is more serious.

If your wound is not bleeding:

  • rinse under running water for 2 minutes — it might be easier to do this with a shower head)
  • pat dry with a clean cloth
  • cover your 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 signs of an infection, see your doctor
  • if you your tetanus immunisation is not up to date, contact your doctor
  • if you are in pain, get advice from your doctor

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

If your wound is still bleeding:

  • cover it with a clean cloth
  • apply pressure directly over the affected area — use a pad made from a clean, rolled up piece of material such as a towel
  • the material should be damp with clean water — this will reduce the amount of blood soaked up
  • keep the pressure there for 15 minutes
  • use a bandage to wrap around the pad or dressing — don’t wrap the bandage too tightly since it may affect your circulation
  • if the bleeding is very heavy, and it comes through the bandage — use a second dressing to cover the first one and go to your nearest hospital
  • if the bleeding continues through both bandages and pads, remove the second bandage only and apply a new one and go to your nearest hospital
  • don’t look at the wound to see if it has stopped bleeding — removing the pressure might cause it to start bleeding again

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Complications from animal bites

The main complications from an animal bite are:

  • tissue damage
  • psychological distress
  • infection

Studies have shown that about 1 in 2 people fear dogs after a dog bite.

What are the signs of infection after an animal bite?

Your risk of infection depends on:

  • the animal that bit you
  • your injury

Different animals have different microbes in their mouths.

Your risk of developing an infection after an animal bite is higher if:

  • the bite is a puncture or crush wound (particularly if bitten by a cat)
  • the wound goes down to your bone, joint, tendons, blood vessels or is near a prosthetic joint
  • the wound is on your hand, foot, face or genitals
  • you don’t get medical help for more than 8 hours
  • you have problems with your immune system, swelling or lymphoedema

The symptoms and signs that show an animal bite may be infected are:

  • the wound getting more painful
  • swelling
  • redness
  • heat around the wound
  • tenderness around the bite
  • discharge from the wound
  • swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck, armpits or groin
  • shivers or a high temperature (over 38℃)

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Tetanus

You will need a tetanus vaccination (shot) if you haven’t had one in the last 5 years.

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that releases toxins into your blood. It can be fatal. Your healthcare professional may advise that you have a tetanus booster injection.

Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV)

ABLV can be transmitted from bats to humans. It is like rabies but is very rare. Only 3 cases of ABLV have been recorded in Australia since the virus was first found in 1996. All 3 people were in Queensland and died.

You will be given rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin after a bat bite or scratch.

Hepatitis and HIV

Hepatitis B, hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can be spread through human bites.

If you have been bitten, talk with your doctor about proophylactic treatment to prevent these diseases.

Rabies risk when travelling

The rabies virus comes from the same groups of viruses as ABLV. Rabies is usually spread via a bite from an infected mammal. Dogs in Australia don’t have rabies.

However, you might be exposed to rabies when travelling. Your risk of rabies depends on where you are travelling. Generally, your risk is highest in Asia and Africa.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a map showing countries with a high risk of rabies.

To lower your risk of getting rabies when you travel:

  • you should talk to your doctor at least one month before you start your trip
  • don’t touch animals when travelling

Rabies vaccine protects you against rabies before you are exposed. Vaccination is suggested for people who are visiting rabies endemic countries and at risk of being bitten or scratched by mammals.

Resources and support

You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: January 2023


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