Treating Animal Bites

"Raccoon"At Christensen & Hymas, we often work with clients who have been injured due to dog bites and dog attacks. However, as human civilization continues to blend with nature we are seeing more and more interaction with animals. Relative to the yearly volume of dog bites, other animal attacks are uncommon and surprisingly, often go unreported. In 2010, the American Association of Poison Control received 94,823 reports of injury due to animal exposure.

Both wild and domestic animals can be prone to violence, especially when they are provoked by humans. It is important to know how to stay safe while interacting with animals, and how to treat animal bites in the case of an injury.

What are animal bites?

An animal bite is “a wound caused by the teeth of an animal. The teeth puncture, tear, scratch, bruise, or crush the person’s tissue. The injury can damage skin, nerves, bone, muscle, blood vessels, or joints.”

As with any injury, animal bites can range from very mild to life-threatening. The level of severity will depend on a number of factors, including the size of the animal that did the biting, the location of the bite, the health condition of the animal, and how quickly the victim is able to receive medical treatment.

If you have been bitten, try to remember as many details about the animal and the incident as you can. An animal that seemed to bite for no reason, was foaming at the mouth, or that seemed particularly aggressive and “wild” may have rabies, which will affect the way medical professionals treat your bite. Knowing as much about the bite as possible may help to save your limb (or your life!) later on.

Why do animals bite? How do we prevent animal bites?

Plainly put, animals can bite for a variety of reasons. While it is impossible to completely predict the animal behavior, you can greatly reduce your risk of being bitten if you learn to practice and observe basic “animal etiquette.”

When interacting with pets, particularly dogs, give them their space and do not force them to play or be in the same room as you. Never place your face near a dog’s mouth, and teach children to avoid “kissing” dogs on the nose or mouth. Never steal food or toys from a pet, and never pretend to hit or otherwise hurt a pet. Watch children carefully when they are interacting with pets, even pets that are very familiar to you and your family. Avoid interacting directly with animals that are unfamiliar to you or that seem to be acting in an aggressive manner. Always ask for permission from an animal’s owner before petting or moving closer to an animal.

While spending time outside, particularly in the mountains or regions where large animals are likely to be, you need to exercise caution. Wild animals are more aggressive by nature, and are unpredictable. Typically, they fear humans and will avoid large groups of people, staying mostly out of sight. If you do encounter groups of wild animals, try to keep your distance. Do not provoke them by throwing objects at, yelling at, or chasing them. An animal that is left unprovoked is much more likely to leave you and your group alone. Smaller animals, such as raccoons and squirrels, are more commonly seen and more accustomed to spending time around humans than their larger, wilder counterparts like bears and mountain lions. Bites from wild animals should always be examined by a medical professional as soon as possible after they happen. A bite from a rodent could end up being as severe as a bite from a large predator if the rodent is ill.

What are the symptoms of animal bites?

Fresh animal bites will be painful, with a good chance of persistent bleeding. Because skin is now open and exposed to the elements, animal bites can easily become infected. The common warning signs for an infected bite include:

  • Redness around the bite site
  • Swelling
  • Thick pus drainage
  • Increased pain
  • Warmth at the bite site
  • Fever
  • Red streaks leading away from the bite site
  • Increased tenderness

How are animal bites diagnosed by a medical professional?

When you visit a doctor after being bitten by an animal, the doctor will assess the severity of your bite before attempting to treat the wound. Your doctor will examine the wound to determine the risk of infection and minimize scarring or permanent deformities to your face or body. They will also address whether you need vaccinations.

Your doctor will use a variety of methods to assess your bite. After inspecting the area for imbedded debris, he or she may order x-rays to get a more thorough look at the wound. It is important to note that some debris items, such as grass, teeth, and dirt, will not always appear in x-rays. Only metal objects are guaranteed to show up in an x-ray scan, which is why proper inspection and wound irrigation are so important. Your doctor will irrigate the bite area with saline solution or tap water to help remove unwanted debris and objects from the wound. In bites that are more severe or that resulted in crushing of the tissue, your doctor may need to remove parts of your skin to help promote healing and to prevent further damage. Some bites will also need to be closed with sutures to help prevent infection.

How are animal bites treated?

Each animal bite is treated differently, depending on the size and severity of the wound.

If a person has sustained a minor bite from a household pet, or if you are in the wilderness or are unable to seek medical attention immediately, follow these steps for immediate, short-term treatment:

  1. Make sure the victim is calm and stable for you administer to them. Do not attempt to treat a person who is unconscious or who is exhibiting signs of severe shock or pain. Whenever possible, get the victim to a hospital immediately.
  2. Wash your hands thoroughly and wear latex gloves before attempting to treat the animal bite.
  3. Make sure the bite is not bleeding severely, then thoroughly wash out the wound using soap and running water (if the bite continues to bleed, do not attempt to wash it out and proceed to step 4). Make sure you have washed away all dirt, debris, teeth, and other objects from the wound that could lead to infection. Use antibiotic cream to cover the bite and wrap the area with clean gauze or bandages.
  4. Apply direct heavy pressure on the bite to help slow the bleeding. Use a clean cloth or piece of gauze to prevent infection. Elevate the area of the bite as much as possible.
  5. Contact medical professionals right away if the bite is on the hand or fingers.
  6. Continue to monitor the wound for the next 1 to 2 days, and get the individual to a doctor or hospital immediately if their condition worsens.

If a person has sustained a deep bite from a pet or any type of bite from a wild animal, seek medical attention immediately. Do not wait to have the wound examined and treated simply because it does not “look” dangerous. Call a doctor or visit the hospital immediately if:

  • The individual was bitten by wild or unknown animals
  • The individual’s last tetanus shot was more than five years ago
  • The bite is red or swelling, or if there is pus draining from the wound
  • The individual is in pain beyond the minor pain that comes from suffering a bite or cut to the skin
  • The bite is on the face, neck, hand, or fingers
  • The bite appears to be deep, or the bite covers a large surface area
  • The bite appears to need stitches

Sources: Medline Plus, NYU Department of Pediatrics, emedicinehealth.

Photo copy right to Tambako The Jaguar

Ken Christensen
Partner, Founder at Christensen & Hymas
Ken Christensen is the founding partner of Christensen & Hymas. He is an avid cyclist, loves baseball, and enjoys spending time with his family in the outdoors.

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