Animal and human bites can become infected if they're not assessed and treated promptly.
Animals have bacteria in their mouths that can infect you if you're bitten. Therefore, you should always seek medical advice unless the wound is very minor (see below).
Human bites should always be assessed by a healthcare professional, as there is a high risk of infection.
Cleaning the wound
If the wound from an animal bite is small, you can clean it yourself using tap water before seeking medical advice (see below).
If the wound is bleeding heavily, put a clean pad or sterile dressing over it and apply pressure.
Large, deep or dirty wounds should be assessed and treated by a healthcare professional.
Seeking medical advice
Always seek medical advice if you've been bitten by an animal or human, unless the wound is very minor and you're confident it doesn't need medical attention.
Minor bites can be treated by your GP or staff at your local walk-in centre or minor injuries unit. For more severe bite wounds involving bones, joints or tendons, visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.
The hospital doctor or nurse will assess, clean and dress the wound. If you have an open wound that is bleeding excessively, it may be stitched up straight away to prevent blood loss, despite the risk of infection. An infected wound can lead to serious complications (see below).
A short course of antibiotics may be prescribed for large or deep wounds, to prevent infection. Antibiotics are also used when a person has a weakened immune system – for example, as a result of a health condition such as HIV and AIDS, or from receiving certain treatments such as chemotherapy.
Common types of bites
Most animals are capable of biting, but dog bites tend to be the most common animal bite, followed by cat bites.
Young children are often bitten by dogs, particularly boys aged five to nine years old.
Male dogs are usually responsible and are either family pets or dogs that belong to friends or neighbours.
Bites from stray dogs are rarer because strays are often wary of humans and usually keep their distance.
Most cat bites (about 70%) are caused by pet cats. Elderly women are often bitten on the hand while feeding or stroking a cat.
As cats are predators, they can sometimes react unpredictably, particularly if they're undomesticated (not used to living with people).
Most human bites occur during fights when a person punches someone in the teeth.
These types of bites are known as closed-fist bites or "fight bites". Men aged 16-25 are most likely to experience them as they're most likely to get into fights.
Read about the causes of animal and human bites.
Complications of animal bites
A bacterial infection is the most common complication of an animal or human bite.
The saliva of mammals contains hundreds of millions of bacteria from many different species, many of which can cause an infection.
Signs that a bite has become infected include:
- redness and swelling around the wound
- the wound becoming more painful
- fluid or pus leaking from the wound
- a high temperature or flu-like symptoms if bacteria enter the bloodstream
Read about the symptoms of an infected animal bite.
Seek immediate medical advice if you think a bite has become infected. Although uncommon, infected animal and human bites can lead to more serious secondary infections, including:
- blood poisoning (sepsis)
- meningitis (infection of the outer layers of the brain)
- endocarditis (infection of the inner lining of the heart)
Read more about the complications of animal and human bites.
Never leave a child unsupervised with a dog, regardless of what type of dog it is or its previous behaviour.
Many of the more serious dog bites occur when a child is left alone with a dog.
Other things you can do to avoid being bitten by an animal or human include:
- respecting a dog’s boundaries – like many animals, dogs have a strong sense of personal space
- not approaching an unfamiliar cat – it could be a stray and react aggressively
- avoiding binge drinking – most people who end up in fights were drinking heavily
Read more about preventing animal and human bites.
- Antibiotics are medicines that can be used to treat infections caused by micro-organisms, usually bacteria or fungi. For example amoxicillin, streptomycin and erythromycin.
- Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.