Animal Bites: What You Need to Know

An animal bite is a common injury that can lead to serious complications. It’s estimated that dog bites make up about 1% of all injury-related emergency room visits in the United States each year. While most animal bites are not life-threatening, they can become dangerous when they become infected. When this occurs, bacteria can quickly spread to other areas of the body. 

It is possible to be bitten by a wild animal, but most animal bites come from an animal you know, such as a pet. Animals tend to bite when they feel stressed or threatened.

This article will describe the different types of animal bites and how to treat them. It will also explain when to seek medical care. 

Asian Man With Dog Walking On Beach Against Clear Sky.

Felipe Alves / 500px

Why Do Animals Bite?

Animals usually do not bite unless they feel threatened in some way. An animal may bite if they feel stressed, scared, or startled. They may also bite in an effort to protect something important to them like their food. Animals that are sick or injured are more likely to bite as well. Pets that are playing with you may nip or lightly bite you. 

Different Types of Animal Bites

Animal bites differ based on the type of animal that is involved. An animal bite looks like a break or tear in the skin and is most likely to happen to children. Dogs are the most common cause of animal bites. Cats are less likely to bite, but their bites are more prone to infection. 

Wild Animal Bite

Wild animal bites are rare but can be serious. Wild animals usually do not approach people unless they feel threatened or are sick. A wild animal bite could come from a bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox. 

If you have been bitten by a wild animal, then rabies is a concern. While incredibly rare, it is possible to be infected with rabies from an animal bite. 

Dog Bite

Dog bites are the most common type of animal bite and usually occur with a dog that is known to you. It’s estimated that dog bites account for 85% to 90% of all animal bites in the United States. The majority of dog bites happen to children. 

When a dog bites the skin, its small front teeth usually cause tears in the skin. This results in an open wound with jagged edges.

Cat Bite

While cat bites are not nearly as common as dog bites, they can be more dangerous. This is because cats’ teeth are longer and sharper than dogs'. This leads to a deeper cut and an increased risk of infection. This is especially concerning in an older cat because parts of their teeth may break off in the wound.

If you are concerned that you have developed an infection from an animal bite, contact your healthcare provider right away.


Symptoms of an animal bite include:

  • Broken or torn skin
  • Puncture wound
  • Pain 
  • Bruising
  • Tendon or joint injury 

What Causes An Animal Bite Infection?

Any time the skin barrier is broken, the risk of infection increases. An animal bite can quickly lead to an infection because of bacteria found in the animal’s mouth that is then introduced into the skin. 

It’s estimated that about 50% of dog bites infect the body with bacteria like staphylococcus, streptococcus, Pasteurella, and capnocytophaga. Wild and unvaccinated animals can carry the rabies virus as well.


Rabies is a serious viral infection in certain warm-blooded animals. Once rabies symptoms present in an adult or child, the virus is almost always fatal. If you have been bitten by an unknown animal, it is crucial that you talk with your healthcare provider about your rabies risk. It is possible to prevent rabies after an animal bite with immunization. 

Cats are the most common domestic animal to have rabies. Raccoons, bats, and skunks are the most common wild animals. 

When to Seek Medical Care

Never hesitate to contact your healthcare provider after an animal bite. Seek medical care if you or your child are bitten by a wild animal, a stray, or a pet that you do not know. 

Other times to seek medical care include:

  • The bite is on your face, head, neck, hand, or feet
  • The bleeding will not stop
  • The wound is deep
  • You can see muscle or bone exposed
  • There are signs of infection such as redness, swelling, increasing pain, or pus coming from the wound
  • You have a fever
  • It has been more than 10 years since your last tetanus shot
  • You are unsure if the animal has been vaccinated against rabies

If the animal bite will not stop bleeding, hold continuous pressure on it while making your way to the emergency room or urgent care clinic. 

If you or your child have been bitten by an animal that is behaving in a strange way, seek medical care right away and call animal control or your local police. 


To diagnose an animal bite, your healthcare provider will conduct a thorough history and physical exam. This will help them to determine your infection risk and which treatments are needed. Your healthcare provider will ask several questions including:

  • What kind of animal bit you?
  • Do you know if this animal has been vaccinated against rabies?
  • How did the bite happen?
  • How did you clean the wound?
  • Did you apply an antibiotic ointment?
  • Was the animal acting strangely or aggressively?
  • When was your last tetanus shot?


To treat an animal bite at home, immediately wash it with soap and water. Rinse the wound for at least 3 to 5 minutes. If the wound is bleeding, hold firm pressure on it with gauze. Once the bleeding has stopped, apply antibiotic cream or ointment to a clean bandage and cover the wound.

If the wound seems deep or will not stop bleeding, you may need stitches. This is especially true for animal bites on the face. 

Your healthcare provider may recommend taking an antibiotic medication to prevent infection after a bite. Animal bites on the hand and fingers are the most at risk of leading to infection. Giving antibiotics to patients with a hand-wound can lower the risk of infection from 28% to 2%.


Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent animal bites. Because most animal bites happen to children, it’s important to teach them how to be safe around animals. Explain that it is never okay to approach an unknown animal. Do not leave children alone with an animal, even a pet. Teach kids to avoid touching an animal’s face and to never tease a pet. 

Never approach a wild animal, especially if it is behaving strangely or aggressively. Do not try to separate animals that are fighting. 

To reduce the risk of your dog biting anyone, make sure they are trained and socialized. Socializing a dog from the time they are young reduces the chances of them becoming scared and biting out of fear. 

Finally, make sure that both your family and your pets are up to date on their vaccinations. 


Animal bites are a relatively common injury that can lead to serious infection. While it is possible to be bitten by a wild animal, most animal bites come from a known animal such as a pet. Animals tend to bite when they feel stressed or threatened in some way. The best way to prevent animal bites is to never approach an unknown animal and to refrain from teasing or playing too roughly with a pet.

A Word From Verywell 

Being bitten or seeing your child bitten by an animal is a scary experience. Fortunately, most animal bites heal on their own and do not lead to complications. If you have been bitten and are concerned that the wound is becoming infected, see your healthcare provider right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take for an animal bite infection to go away?

    The duration of an animal bite infection depends on several factors. If the infection has spread to the blood or other areas of the body, it can take months to heal. 

  • How painful is an animal bite?

    An animal bite can be quite painful depending on how severe it is. If your pain feels out of control, seek medical treatment right away. 

  • Which animal has the strongest bite?

    Cat bites tend to be deeper than dog bites because their teeth are longer and sharper.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ellis R, Ellis C. Dog and cat bites. Am Fam Physician. 2014;90(4):239-243.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Animal bites and rabies.

  3. American Veterinary Medical Association. Why do dogs bite?

  4. MedlinePlus. Animal bites.

  5. MedlinePlus. Animal bites - self-care.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. If a dog bites you, do these 6 things now.

  7. American Academy of Pediatrics. Treatment for animal bites.

  8. Connecticut Children’s. First aid: animal bites.

Additional Reading

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.