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Dog, cat and bat bites

6-minute read

Are dog, cat or bat bites serious?

Dog or cat bites are usually minor, but infections can occur if the skin is broken and bacteria from the saliva (spit) of the animal enter your bloodstream.

To avoid developing tetanus, seek medical advice immediately if you are bitten and the skin is broken. Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that releases toxins into the blood, and it can be fatal. Your healthcare professional may recommend you have a tetanus booster injection.

Animal bites are a common cause of injury. Dog and cat bites are the most frequent, but any animal — including pets, wild animals and humans — can bite you.

You should avoid handling bats or flying foxes in Australia unless you are trained in their care.

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

What injuries can an animal bite cause?

Bites, which can be very painful or uncomfortable, often result in the following types of injury:

What are the symptoms of infection after an animal bite?

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

  • the wound getting more painful
  • swelling
  • redness
  • increasing 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°C)

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

How are animal bites treated?

You can treat and care for some animal bites yourself. You may need medical attention if the wound is more serious.

Preventing infection

You won't generally need antibiotics to prevent an infection after a human or animal bite. However, you should see your doctor — who may prescribe you antibiotics — if you have:

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

Treating minor wounds or cuts from bites

You can easily treat a minor wound or cut yourself; a larger or more serious wound (such as a deep or gaping wound) will need medical attention.

A wound or cut is considered 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); 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

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, children under 5 are most at risk and are more likely to be bitten on the head, neck and face — around the lips, cheek or nose.

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

Dog bites typically cause a puncture wound in the skin, as well as lacerations (jagged cuts) and abrasions (scrapes or grazes) which can lead to infection and scarring.

Cat bites

Cat bites usually cause only minor injuries, but their bites often cause infection and it is difficult to tell how deep the wound is. Cats have small and sharp teeth that can cause very deep puncture wounds, which can sometimes go right down to the bone. For puncture wounds see your doctor as soon as possible.

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

Bat bites

Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) belongs to a group of viruses known as lyssaviruses. ABLV can be transmitted from bats to humans if you are bitten by a bat 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.

You should avoid handling bats 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.

If you find an injured bat, 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
  • seek urgent medical attention to care for the wound and to assess whether you are at risk of infection — if you have been bitten on the head or neck, you will need to be vaccinated within 48 hours

There is no available treatment for ABLV once symptoms have started.

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Last reviewed: September 2020

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