Animal bites and scratches, even minor ones, can become infected and spread bacteria to other parts of the body. Whether the animal is a family pet or a creature from the "wild," scratches and bites can carry disease. For example, cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection, can be transmitted by a cat scratch (usually from a kitten) even if the site of the scratch doesn't look infected. Animal bites can also lead to tetanus if a person has not been immunized, and certain animals can transmit rabies.
What to Do:
- If the bite or scratch wound is bleeding, apply pressure to the area with a clean bandage or towel until the bleeding stops. If available, use clean latex or rubber gloves to protect yourself from exposure to another person's blood.
- If the wound is not bleeding severely, clean the wound with soap and water, and hold it under running water for several minutes. Do not apply an antiseptic or anything else to the wound.
- Dry the wound and cover it with sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
- Phone your doctor if the bite broke or punctured the skin. A child who is bitten by an animal may need antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or a rabies vaccination. A bite or scratch on a child's hand or face is particularly prone to infection and should be evaluated by your doctor.
- If your child was bitten or scratched by an animal, note the location of the animal. Some animals may have to be captured, confined, and observed for rabies. But do not try to capture the animal yourself. Look in your phone book for the number of an animal control office or animal warden in your area.
- Seek immediate medical care if:
- the wound won't stop bleeding after 10 minutes of direct pressure
- the wound is more than half an inch long, appears to be deep, or is associated with severe injuries
- the attacking animal was stray or wild or behaving strangely
- the bite or scratch becomes red, hot, swollen, or increasingly painful
If you own a pet, make sure it's properly immunized and licensed.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2007