Bitten by an animal? Here’s what you should know

An adopted dog, Whiskey, at Kenai Lake in Alaska. No humans were bitten in the taking of this photo. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

By Mackenzie Evenson
Medill Reports

Animals bites account for 1% of all emergency room visits and often happen without warning. Should you put antibiotic ointment on the fresh wound or will that infect it? Should you seek immediate medical attention? Here’s how to decide whether to slap on a bandage — or head to the nearest urgent-care center.

Cat bites: They’re deceiving. The wound could close up immediately and not bleed at all. But beware. “Cats have sharper, pointier teeth that tend to puncture and seep sometimes really nasty bacteria deep down underneath where they bit you,” said Byron de la Navarre, owner and veterinarian at Animal House of Chicago. “It’ll be festering an inch or a half-inch underneath your skin and can lead to a bad infection or abscess.” Cats have bacteria in their teeth and their toenails; they lick themselves and hang out in their litter boxes barefoot. At first glance, the punctured area may look fine, but if you do not get it looked at almost immediately (especially if have hypersensitive skin), you could get a significant infection. Make sure both you and the cat are up to date on shots like a tetanus booster and the rabies vaccine.

Dog bites: Unlike felines, man’s best friends boast clean mouths. Alas, they also have bigger, stronger jaws that can do real damage to the skin and muscles. They may penetrate the skin deeper and leave bacteria further underneath the skin, depending on whether they use their front or back teeth (fronts puncture, backs crush). Rabies is a bigger concern than tetanus. “It’s not nearly as prevalent as the media would make you think,” said de la Navarre. Still, make sure both you and the dog are up to date on your tetanus and rabies shots.

Spider bite: Arachnids are almost never as dangerous as people think they are. Just look out for the brown recluse and the black widow. When someone gets bitten by a brown recluse, the media and medical reports often only ever show the extreme side of the bites that can rot flesh, classifying the bite as “dermonecrotic.” In reality, 90% of brown recluse bites are minor or self-healing, and the last 10% are dermonecrotic. Fewer than 1% of their bites are fatal. Rick Vetter, a retired research assistant and brown recluse expert in the department of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, said if you are bitten by one of the two species, see a doctor no matter what because you don’t want to be a part of that 10% and get to the doctor too late.

Bird bites: Birds have surprisingly clean mouths, according to de la Navarre. They can puncture deeply, which hurts, but they do not harbor the same type of harmful bacteria as cats, reptiles, and other animals.

Small animal bites: Rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs and ferrets might bite, but it’s unlikely. Frogs are another story. Amphibians’ mouths are homes to bacteria like salmonella, which can cause serious infection if you come into contact directly or indirectly, according to the New York State Department of Health. Get checked out by a doctor.

Sloth bite: If you are ever near one of these tree-inhabiting mammals, pay attention to them. Sloths are not pets for everyone and their owners usually have traveling animal shows and know how to take care of them, according to de la Navarre. They have big teeth so they can bite you, but fortunately they do it at a sluggish pace. It’s largely your own fault you get bitten because you have plenty of time to get away.

Best practices: Animals are more likely to bite you if they are irritable. Get away from an aggressive or fearful dog as soon as possible, especially if it is not your own. But avoid running away with your back facing it. If you can’t get away, try to intimidate the animal that bit you. “Waving your hands, screaming, calling for help. It depends,” said de la Navarre. Have a stare down. Often the animal was just stimulated by you if you were running, riding on a skateboard, or moving in any way. Once the movement stops, the animal usually settles down a bit more. “You could grab objects — a stick, a garbage can, whatever is around you — to steer away or dissuade the dog or whatever it is, from wanting to take you any further,” he said. In the cases of wild animals, running away from them may make them want to chase you. In both scenarios, do your best to stay calm.

Control the bleeding. The first step after being bitten is to control the bleeding. People often think it’s good because it is flushing out the wound and cleaning it, which is true to an extent. However, even if it is minor, a little bit of “flushing out” is fine before you should control it. Any significant bleeding should still be controlled by applying pressure, as you do not know how deep the puncture wound is. They could have hit an artery, so your best bet is to press down and control the bleeding. “Clean it like you would a wound after falling off a bike and scraped your elbows or knees,” said de la Navarre. Clean it with water first and try not to use alcohol to disinfect because it will burn a lot, according to Jamie Bagley, a technical assistant at Midnight Sun Animal Hospital and Emergency Services. Some washes are designed not to sting; you can also use an antibacterial, unscented soap if you have one such as Hibiclens, Dial or Cetaphil. The goal is to flush away any surface-level bacteria to lessen the possibility of contamination.

Visit the doctor. “I think every bite, unfortunately, does warrant medical attention. I would never say to anybody, friend or foe, ‘Oh, just clean yourself up and watch it,’” said de la Navarre. “You really should have it looked at.”

Photo at top: Adopted dog, Whiskey, at Kenai Lake in Alaska. No humans were bitten in the taking of this photo. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)