How to Treat a Dog Bite

Each year in the United States, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs. More than 800,000 seek medical treatment for their injuries. Dogs may bite for several reasons. They may be afraid, sick, or in pain. They may also bite out of aggression. Regardless of the reason, it's important to know how to handle a dog bite. Without proper treatment, there's a high risk of serious illness or injury from a bite.

This article explains the risks related to dog bites. It outlines basic first aid for bite wounds and when to contact your doctor for treatment.

Beware of dog sign on wooden fence
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First Aid Steps

First, be sure the dog that made the attack is secured and that the person who has been bitten is moved away from the animal. Once the person is safe, continue first aid.

If you can't secure the dog (or if it continues to attack), contact animal control or the police right away.

Treating a dog bite should always start with the safety of all involved, including the victim, the rescuer, and, if possible, the dog. Be careful about starting any treatment until there is a reasonable expectation that the dog won't attack again.

Here are tips on how to treat a dog bite.

  • Stay safe: If you are a rescuer, practice universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if available.
  • Stop the bleeding: Controlling bleeding can often be done as you're making the area safe, especially if the patient can help hold pressure. Control any bleeding by following the appropriate steps. Use a clean towel to apply pressure to the bite. Avoid using a tourniquet unless there's severe bleeding that cannot be controlled any other way.
  • Clean the wound: Once the bleeding is controlled, clean the wound with soap and warm water. Do not be afraid to clean inside the wound. Be sure to rinse all the soap away, or it'll cause irritation later.
  • Cover the wound: Use a clean, dry dressing. You can put antibiotic ointment on the wound before covering it, but it's not necessary.

If the patient has multiple bite wounds or bites on the face or hands, seek emergency medical care.

Recap

The first step in caring for someone who's been bitten by a dog is to make sure the surrounding area is safe and the dog has been restrained if possible. Focus on stopping the bleeding and cleaning the wound thoroughly with soap and water.

When to See a Doctor

If the dog has broken your skin, see your doctor within 24 hours so you can receive appropriate care.

Consider going to the emergency room immediately if the bite includes the following:

  • Redness and swelling
  • Pus coming from the wound
  • Deep or large wound
  • Bone or muscle can be seen
  • Bleeding that doesn't stop after a few minutes

Wounds on the face or hands should be checked as soon as possible by a doctor because of the likelihood of scarring and loss of function.

Filing a Police Report

Some areas have regulations that require you to report a dog bite to local police or authorities so the dog can be monitored. In these cases, the doctor may file a report about the injury.

Diagnosis

If you do see a doctor, they will examine your wound to see if the bite was deep enough to require stitches. The injury will also be evaluated to see if there's damage to muscles, nerves, tendons, or even bone.

Your doctor may determine that you need emergency care if the edges of the wound can't touch or if there are any avulsions, which is when tissue has been completely torn away.

Recap

Dog bites that break the skin should always be checked by a doctor. If the injury doesn’t seem serious, you can usually wait a day to be examined, but get care immediately if the wound is severe or if it’s on the face or hands.

Treatment

Once the bleeding has been stopped and the bite is cleaned and covered, the wound needs to be monitored for infection. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, especially if there are deep puncture wounds. You may also need to get a tetanus shot if you haven't had one within five years.

Depending on the size of the bite and where it's located on your body, surgery may be necessary to repair muscle, ligaments, or tissue.

Risk of Rabies

There is a small risk that a dog might carry rabies. It's very rare, but if the dog cannot be identified or a pet owner cannot show proof of rabies vaccination, the patient must seek medical attention. Rabies is typically fatal to humans if not treated.

Bandages should be changed several times a day until the bite heals. It is also important to watch for signs of infection, including:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Fever, or warmth around the wound
  • Weeping pus

Summary

Treating a dog bite involves administering basic first aid, including controlling the bleeding, cleaning and covering the wound, and watching for signs of an infection. You should see a doctor within 24 hours if the skin is broken. Additional treatments may include antibiotics, stitches, or even surgery. Your doctor may also recommend a tetanus booster shot or, in rare instances, a rabies shot.

A Word From Verywell

Dog bites are scary injuries, but in many cases, they can be treated at home initially. The key is to follow basic first aid procedures and then contact your doctor to avoid complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you clean a dog bite wound?

    Dog bites should be cleaned thoroughly. Running water over the wound for five to 10 minutes can flush dirt and bacteria away. After flushing the bite, wash it with gentle soap and water. Be sure to rinse it thoroughly.

  • What should I do if dog bites me?

    First, apply pressure to stop the bleeding. Then, clean the bite out, being sure to get inside the wound. Cover the wound, and contact your doctor to set up an appointment to have the bite checked.

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6 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. American Veterinary Medical Association. Dog bite prevention.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing dog bites.

  3. MedlinePlus. Bleeding.

  4. MedlinePlus. Animal bites - self-care.

  5. O'Brien DC, Andre TB, Robinson AD, Squires LD, Tollefson TT. Dog bites of the head and neck: An evaluation of a common pediatric trauma and associated treatment. Am J Otolaryngol. 2015 Jan-Feb;36(1):32-8. doi:10.1016/j.amjoto.2014.09.001

  6. MedlinePlus. Rabies.

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