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Animal and Human Bites: First Aid

Children can be bitten by different types of animals or by other children. Stray animals are known to bite children. The majority of bites happen around the home by animals that are known to children. Bites often occur when children tease, provoke, or have their faces too close to the animal. Even though your child is only playing, the animal may react otherwise. Other bites may come from snakes, spiders, or scorpions.

Bites can easily become infected. Deep human or cat bites tend to become infected more than dog bites. If your child shows no sign of infection after three or four days, then it is likely an infection has not occurred. The most dangerous bites are those from animals that have rabies or other diseases. Bites from animals such as raccoons, bats, or foxes need medical attention right away.

Signs and symptoms of an animal bite

An animal bite looks like a scratch, a tear, or a puncture wound. An animal scratch can be just as severe as an animal bite if it is not properly looked after. Animal scratches and bites contain germs that can cause infection. If your child’s wound is deep, it is more likely that an infection will occur. Signs that an infection has set in include pain, redness, and swelling around the bite or scratch. Pus or other discharge may drain from the wound. Also, red lines may rise from the wound and extend toward the central part of the body. This may indicate that the wound is infected and the infection is spreading.

Complications

Animal bites rarely cause severe health risks in children. However, rabies, tetanus, and cat scratch disease can threaten your child’s health and development. Be sure to have your child’s updated immunization records with you when you see the doctor. If you can identify the animal or properly detain it, make sure you do it safely. If you know the animal and you are able to obtain a vaccination record, bring that information with you when you see the doctor. It may be necessary to notify the police or the local Public Health authority because the animal may need to be evaluated by animal welfare authorities or a veterinarian.

Treatment

If your child has been bitten by an animal or another child, wash the wound with running water for five to 10 minutes. With a clean, dry towel, pat the wound dry. Apply an antibiotic ointment, like Polysporin, to the wound with a clean finger.

Immediate medical attention

All bites that break the skin should be seen by a doctor right away. Your child’s doctor may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. If the wound appears deep, your child may need stitches. She may need a thorough evaluation for possible injury to structures under the skin.

Seek medical attention right away if:

  • you think your child has been bitten by an animal with rabies
  • your child has been bitten by an animal that is not known
  • your child has been bitten on the head or neck
  • the skin appears split or broken
  • the wound appears deep
  • the wound turns red and begins to swell
  • your child complains of pain around the neck

Possible medical attention

Bites from animals such as small rodents rarely cause infection. Pet rodents like gerbils and hamsters, along with wild rodents like squirrels, mice, and chipmunks are considered rabies-free. However, germs carried on their teeth or claws may cause other infections. It is important to clean the wound and monitor it. If irritation or swelling occurs, see a doctor right away.

Sometimes children bite other children. If the skin has not been broken, there is no need to see a doctor. A quick cleanse of the skin is usually enough treatment.  Seek medical care if signs of infection develop.

Prevention

The best way to prevent an animal bite is proper training and supervision. Teach your children how to behave around animals. Make sure your child always asks the dog’s owner if she can pet it. Children should never approach a strange animal unless given permission by its owner. The owner should closely supervise the child’s interaction with the animal. Pet owners need to train household pets not to bite.

Encourage your child to not bother animals while they are eating or tending to their young. Teach your child to approach an animal slowly and in a way that does not surprise the animal. Be sure your child knows the difference between “playing” and “teasing.” Also, teach your child to keep her face away from a dog’s face.

Key points

  • In most cases, children are bitten by common pets like dogs or cats.
  • Many bites occur when the child is teasing the animal or has her face too close to the animal.
  • Bites are most dangerous when they come from an animal that may have rabies.
  • It is important to keep an eye on your child’s wound. If irritation and swelling occurs, seek medical attention right away.
Bruce Minnes, MD, FRCPC
12/1/2010




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