Animal bites can have serious health consequences. From rabies to puncture wounds that get infected to bites so powerful that they cause structural damage to your body, they are not something to treat lightly.
Bites can come from any type of animal. The most common are dog and cat bites since many of us are in constant contact – or at least comfortable – with these types of animals and don’t always treat them with the caution they sometimes deserve.
Aside from domesticated animals, you can get bitten by just about any wild animal if you are traipsing around in their habitat. I even got bitten by a mole once when clearing out mole tunnels. So you just never know where an animal bite might come from.
Types of bites
There are many types of animal bites that you can experience:
- Crushing wounds – Some animals can exert a lot of pressure in their bite. This can cause crushing damage to associated tissues.
- Puncture damage – Breaking the skin and penetrating the tissue, these bites are prime injectors of bacteria into your system and can also cause damage to structural elements – especially in a hand, foot or face bite.
- Minor bites – Sometimes an animal just nips you as a warning. It may or may not break the skin.
Different animals can cause different types of problems with the same type of bite. For instance, both cats and dogs are quite capable of creating puncture bite. With a dog, the puncture is more likely to be deeper – causing more localized trauma – but with a cat, you are more likely to have the puncture wound get infected.
The diseases you can catch
Animal bites are a one-two punch. The actual bite causes damage and it can also result in a sometimes severe infection or worse.
The most significant include:
- Rabies – Rabies is more of a danger with a wild animal bite but given the rising costs of keeping a dog or cat, many people are skipping rabies shots for their animals so there is always a concern if you get a bite from any animal. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. If there is any question about the health of the animal that bit you, you need to consult a medical professional and perhaps animal control to try to catch the animal for examination.
- Pasteurellosis – This is the most common bite associated infection. Pasteurellosis is a bacterium that naturally exists in the mouths of dogs and cats so it is very likely that you will get infected with this from an animal puncture wound type bite. The bacteria will cause pain, reddening and swelling around the bite wound very soon after the bite -within hours. From there, it can spread and infect your entire body. It is a dangerous infection and can lead to severe complications if left untreated for a long period of time – especially if the bite is on the hand.
- Streptococcal and Staphylococcal infections – Symptoms of these two invasive bacteria are similar to the Pasteurellosis bacteria described above.
- Capnocytophaga infection – While rare, it is very dangerous if you contract it. The most common carrier of this bacterium is dogs. It enters through a puncture wound (even a very small one) and can cause septicemia (blood poisoning) which if left untreated can lead to death.
Like all bacterial infections, healthy people are less likely to suffer long lasting ill effects but there are certain conditions that lead to greater susceptibility. They include:
- Being over 50 years of age.
- Having diabetes, liver disease, circulatory problems, HIV and alcoholism.
- Having had a mastectomy or organ transplant.
- Taking long term steroids or chemotherapy
- Having you spleen removed.
Basically, like most disease, anything that can give you a compromised immune system increases your chances of infection.
How to treat an animal wound
- If the bite is not bleeding too badly, thoroughly clean the wound and surrounding area with soap and warm water. Then treat it with an antibiotic ointment and a clean dressing.
- If the bite is bleeding profusely, the first order of business is to stop the bleeding. Apply direct pressure to the wound until the bleeding stops (and call for immediate medical help if the situation warrants.) Once the bleeding stops, carefully clean the area and treat with antibiotic ointment and a clean dressing.
- If the bite is on the hand or finger, you should seek immediate medical attention. Bites to these areas are much more likely to develop serious complications than a bite to other areas of the body.
Once the bite has been initially treated, watch the area for the next 24 to 48 hours. If you notice increased skin redness, pain or swelling – or if it becomes infected – seek medical assistance right away.
When to get help
There are times when you need to call in the professionals.
It goes without saying that if the attack is severe, you should call for an ambulance to stabilize the victim and have proper medical attention given.
But if the situation is less dire, here are several other instances when you should seek medical help.
- If the person was bitten by a wild or unknown animal.
- If the person has not had a tetanus shot in the past five years.
- If there is swelling, pain, redness or pus draining from the wound.
- If the bite is on the neck, hands or face.
- If the bite is particularly deep or large.
- If you aren’t sure if the bite needs stitches to heal properly.
Lastly, any time you receive an animal bite, you should report it to animal control. They can assist in capturing the animal and verifying that you don’t need to be treated for rabies.