Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour

Animal Bites: First Aid

Children can be bitten or scratched by different types of animals. The majority of bites happen around the home by animals that are known to children but stray animals are also known to bite 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 not understand this and react otherwise.

An animal scratch can be just as severe as an animal bite.

Health risks of animal bites 

Animal bites rarely cause severe health risks in children. The most dangerous bites are those from animals that have rabies including raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. If you think that your child may have been bitten by one of these animals, you need to seek medical attention right away.

Infection is the most common complication of bite injuries, regardless of the species of biting animal. 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. Cat bites tend to become infected more than dog bites. Signs that an infection has set in include fever, 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 infection is spreading. If your child shows no sign of infection after three or four days, then it is likely an infection has not occurred.

Other diseases transmitted with bites include tetanus​ and cat scratch disease . 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.

How to treat an animal bite

If your child has been bitten by an animal, sponge away visible dirt and wash the wound with running water. With a clean, dry towel, pat the wound dry.

When to seek immediate medical attention for an animal bite

All bites that break the skin should be seen by a doctor right away. Depending on the animal, the type of bite and location of the bite, your child’s doctor may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. If the wound appears deep, your child may need stitches. They may need a thorough evaluation for possible injury to structures under the skin. Your child may also need treatment to prevent rabies or tetanus.

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, begins to swell or is painful or if your child develops fever

How to prevent animal bites

The best way to prevent an animal bite is proper training and supervision. Teach your children how to behave around animals. All young children should be closely supervised when in the presence of an animal and from an early age, taught to respect animals. Make sure your child always asks the dog’s owner if they can pet it. Children should never approach a strange animal unless given permission by its owner.

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 their face away from a dog’s face.

Key points

  • In most cases, children are bitten by common pets like dogs or cats.
  • Bites are most dangerous when they come from an animal that may have rabies.
  • Infection is the most common complication of bite injuries. It is important to keep an eye on your child’s wound. If fever, redness or swelling occur, seek medical attention right away.
Elizabeth Berger​, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE​