Learn what to do when a dog bites and when to see a doctor.
Most dogs bring enthusiastic, wagging joy to their owners and everyone around them. But once in a while, dog bites happen.
“Some people are surprised to learn that about half of all dog bites come from family or neighbor pets,” says David Rupprecht, MD, Emergency Department medical director at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital. “Bites from stray animals can happen, but more typically they involve familiar dogs. Wherever they come from, preventing infection in the wound is crucial.”
About one in five dog bites requires medical attention. Here’s what to do and when to seek help.
What to do if bitten by a dog
If bitten, treat the wound properly — even if it’s a minor dog bite with no blood.
- Wash your hands before and after treating the wound.
- Use a clean towel to stop any bleeding.
- Keep the injury elevated.
- Thoroughly wash the bite with mild soap and water.
- Apply antibiotic ointment.
- Wrap the wound with a sterile bandage (non-stick is best).
- Watch for signs of infection for the next day or two — look for swelling, redness, increased pain and fever.
What to do if a dog bites a child
Half of all bites happen to children, who are at the highest risk. Most kids bitten are between 5 and 9 years old, and their faces and hands are the main targets.
“We hear this all the time: ‘My dog bit my child,’” says Dr. Rupprecht. “Generally, there are two types of dog bites: puncture wounds caused by the dog’s canines or more severe lacerations of the skin. If you are at all worried about the severity of the bite, seek medical treatment right away.”
Your main concern with dog bites: reducing the risk of infection. That means going to urgent care or the emergency room for your child the same day — because waiting longer increases the risk of infection.
Dog bites need professional help if:
- The wound is on the head, neck, feet or hands
- Direct pressure doesn’t stop the bleeding after 15 minutes
- The wound looks infected, with redness, swelling, pus, or pain
- The injury affects joints, tendons or bones
- Your child has a weakened immune system
Help from your doctor
You can treat minor bites at home, but see a doctor or go to urgent care for more severe cases.
Your doctor will want to know a few things:
- Do you know the dog owner?
- Is the animal up to date on vaccinations?
- Was the animal aggressive?
- Is the dog known to be healthy and rabies-free?
- What health conditions do you have?
Your doctor will clean the wound and may prescribe antibiotics if infection is a concern. When a dog’s teeth pierce the skin, bacteria from its mouth can enter the body and cause tetanus, rabies or sepsis. Washing the wound (and using antibiotics as needed) will help prevent infection.
“Depending on the severity and depth of the wound, your doctor may also recommend stitches,” says Dr. Rupprecht. “Many doctors, however, let dog bites heal openly unless they’re on the face or if scarring might be an issue.”
As with any bite, make sure your tetanus shot is up to date. If the dog’s health status is unknown or it tests positive for rabies, you’ll need the rabies vaccine. Fortunately, most dogs are not rabid thanks to a mandatory U.S. dog vaccination program.
Health conditions like liver disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system increase your risk for infection. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
Prevent bites in the first place
How can you prevent dog bites? Always be aware of your surroundings and leave unfamiliar dogs alone.
Spot signs of aggressive dog behavior:
- Bared teeth
- Hair on their back standing up
- A straight-legged stance
- Direct eye contact
- The tail held straight up in place
Use caution around our four-legged friends:
- Never run from a dog.
- Don’t approach or pet strange dogs.
- Never touch a sleeping dog.
- Ask an owner before petting their dog.
- Stay away from a dog with puppies.
- Don’t bother a dog while it’s eating.
- Supervise dogs and kids.
There’s a lot to enjoy about dogs. And as long as we give them the space they need, we can coexist happily and keep our friends and family safe.