How to Treat a Dog Bite

Each year in the United States, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs and more than 800,000 seek medical treatment for their injuries. Dogs may bite for a number of reasons. They may be fearful, sick, or in pain, or may bite out of aggression.

Regardless of the reason for the bite, it's important to know how to handle a dog bite, because it can cause a significant injury or infection. This article outlines basic first aid for bite wounds and when to contact your physician.

Beware of dog sign on wooden fence
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First Aid Steps

Secure the dog and/or the person who has been bitten. Move one away from the other. Dogs may bite because their territory is threatened. If the dog's owner is around, instruct them to secure the dog. If not, move the person to a safe location and continue first aid.

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 at the same time as you are 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 is 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 will cause irritation later.
  • Cover the wound. Use a clean, dry dressing. You can put antibiotic ointment on the wound before covering, but it's not necessary.

The first step in any first aid situation is to make sure that the area is safe, and to assess the patient. If you are unable to secure the dog (or if it continues to attack) or move the patient to a safe location, contact animal control or the police right away. If the patient has multiple bite wounds, or bites on the face or hands, seek emergency medical care.

When to See a Doctor

If you have been bitten by a dog, experts recommend contacting your doctor within eight hours to determine if you should be seen. Some dog bites need antibiotics, particularly if there are deep puncture wounds.

Wounds on the face or hands should always be assessed by a physician because of the likelihood of scarring and loss of function.

Additionally, many municipalities have regulations for reporting dog bites and monitoring the dogs, which is often initiated by contact with a doctor.

Diagnosis

If your doctor wants to see you, they will examine your dog bite wound to see if the bite was deep enough to damage muscles, nerves, tendons, or even bone.

The wound may need stitches. If the edges of a laceration are unable to touch, or if there are any avulsions (where tissue is torn away), the wound will need emergency medical attention.

Any unidentified dog presents a minor risk of carrying rabies. It's very rare, but if the dog cannot be identified and the owner cannot show proof of rabies vaccination, the patient must seek medical attention. Rabies is typically fatal to humans if not treated.

Treatment

Treating a dog bite involves administering basic first aid, including controlling the bleeding, cleaning and covering the wound, and monitoring for infection. Your doctor may prescribe additional treatments—such as antibiotics, stitches, or even surgery—depending on the size of the bite and where it is located on your body. They may also recommend a tetanus booster shot.

When it comes to animal bites, rabies is also a concern. If you are unable to confirm that the dog is up to date on its vaccinations, you may require additional treatment for rabies. This may involve an injection of rabies antibodies and several rabies vaccine shots.

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

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.

How do you treat a dog bite wound?

Treatment for a dog bite begins with controlling the bleeding. Once you've stopped the bleeding, clean and cover the wound before contacting your doctor to determine what additional steps may be necessary.

A Word From Verywell

Dog bites are scary injuries, but in many cases they can be treated at home. By following basic first aid procedures for this type of wound and knowing when to contact a physician, you can avoid complications.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Veterinary Medical Association. Dog bite prevention.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing dog bites. Updated April 8, 2019.

  3. MedlinePlus. Bleeding. Updated October 16, 2017.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. If a dog bites you, do these 7 things now. Published February 7, 2020.

  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. Updated September 22, 2018.

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