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Dog bite

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Dog bites are common and often occur to the hands, forearms or lower legs. Dog saliva carries lots of bacteria, and there’s a risk of infection if the bite has broken the skin. So if a dog has bitten you or your child, give it a thorough look, and seek medical attention if there is a puncture wound, as it is likely to need antibiotics.

Dog bites are the most common animal bites – from your own pet or that of a neighbor’s - but the same advice here applies to cat bites or other domestic animals.

Next steps

If the bite appears to be minor and there's no break to the skin, it’s sensible to watch and wait for any signs of infection or discomfort. There may be some mild bruising, but this normally subsides within a few days without any treatment being needed.

If there's any break to the skin, clean the wound under cool running water immediately for 15 minutes and pat dry with sterile gauze or a clean towel or tissue. If there is bleeding, apply firm pressure with the gauze or towel for up to 15 minutes, and wrap well before seeking help. If there is anything embedded in there, such as a tooth or dog hair, try to ease it out with the gauze, but don’t force it as this can be safely removed by an emergency team.

You can visit your local emergency department, walk-in center, or urgent care center for urgent medical attention. If the bite appears fairly minor, you could call your doctor for same-day advice.

If there is a break to the skin, you are likely to be given a course of antibiotics and if needed, you may be offered stitches to help it heal. If there is a risk of damage to a joint, bone or nerve, there’s excessive bleeding or the wound is deep, or if it involves the face, your team may seek a specialist opinion, and they may do further tests such as an X-ray or another scan.

You may also be offered a tetanus booster vaccine, if you’re not sure when you last had one, or you know it was more than ten years ago.

Once home, you should keep the wound clean and dry, and apply dressings as directed.

When to worry?

Bacteria is the most likely infectious agent, but there’s the possibility of others. If there’s any risk of rabies, you or your child will be offered a rabies vaccine to protect you. Rabies is rare in the US, but it may be more of a risk if you’re abroad.

Watch out for any signs of infection, such as the area around the injury becoming red, swollen, hot or sore, yellow or white pus oozing out, you start feeling unwell or feverish, or you are finding it difficult or painful to move any joints or muscles under the bite. Return to the emergency department if this is the case.

Who's dog is it?

If this is your dog, you will know about their vaccination status. All dogs in the US should have been vaccinated against rabies by law. If you are unsure, your medical team may suggest giving you or your child the rabies vaccine for protection.

A dog that bites is potentially dangerous to you, your family, neighbors and strangers. Your medical team will ask about the circumstances and may suggest that the incident is reported to the police to protect other members of the public. If this was your dog, you are personally responsible for their behavior and could be criminally liable for future attacks. If this is someone else’s dog, they will be held responsible.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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