What to Do When a Pet Bites You

In America, we love our pets—nearly 70 percent of U.S. households own a pet—and for the most part, they love us back and make life better. But pets are still animals, and bites happen.

Bites can pose significant health risks if left untreated, so it’s important to know what to do if your pet bites you. Here are four tips from UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD.

1. Wash your wound immediately to help prevent infection.

While puppy bites and cat nips are usually harmless, if a bite breaks through the skin, the potential for an infection is real.

“If you’re bit by any animal, the most important thing is the first aid—washing it with soap, until the wound appears clean. If the bite is bleeding, put pressure on it using sterile gauze or a clean cloth,” Dr. Ruff says.

Once the bleeding has stopped, put antibiotic ointment or Vaseline on the area. Then cover the area with a bandage or sterile gauze. If you have pain, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

2. Seek medical attention for bites that break the skin.

Dr. Ruff says that for any animal bites that break the skin, it’s important to have a healthcare provider take a look. Whether that happens right away or in the next few days depends on the severity of the wound.

“Call your primary doctor if you have access to one and if you don’t, it’s never a bad idea to go to urgent care, because with animal bites there’s a big risk of infection,” Dr. Ruff says.

You may be prescribed antibiotics to treat or prevent an infection. If the wound is bleeding a lot, go to the emergency department.

“They’ll clean it out, give you antibiotics, and decide if it needs stitches,” Dr. Ruff says.

3. You may need a tetanus shot.

If you end up in the emergency department, you will get a tetanus shot if it’s been more than five years since you had your last tetanus shot. Tetanus vaccines are good for 10-year intervals, but in the case of a possibly “dirty” wound that could carry tetanus bacteria, it’s safest to revaccinate if your last dose was more than five years ago, Dr. Ruff says. Tetanus is a potentially fatal infection caused by a bacterium that can be introduced by an animal bite.

“You always need to make sure that your tetanus is up to date with any animal bite, including dogs, cats, snakes, basically any bite,” Dr. Ruff says.

4. Go to the emergency department if the animal is wild or not vaccinated against rabies.

If you are bitten by a wild animal or a pet you don’t know—as in, you can’t confirm the animal has been vaccinated against rabies—go to the emergency department. There is a medication they will give you immediately, and then the emergency department staff will contact your local public health department and let them know you have been bitten.

“They have to check the status of the animal, and if it’s a dog that they don’t know the status of (or a wild animal), they often will capture it and observe it for 10 days,” Dr. Ruff says. “They’ll then let you know if you need any treatment for rabies protection.”

Rabies is a deadly virus, but people who may have been exposed can receive a series of shots that are extremely effective in preventing illness. The rabies vaccination is started in the emergency department and then you’ll return for subsequent doses. (In the United States, most human rabies is caused by bites from bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes.)

“They’ll give you all the directions,” Dr. Ruff says, “so that’s not something that you have to figure out on your own.”

Worried about a pet bite? Talk to your doctor or find one near you.