Skip to content

Bite wounds are common: In the U.S., half of us will be bitten by an animal or human at least once. Most of those bites will come from household pets.

There are about 5 million dog bites a year in the U.S. Cats are the second most common biters, but their bites pose a higher risk of infection because they can cause deep punctures and lacerations. A dog bite, on the other hand, typically causes a crushing-type wound because of their rounded teeth and strong jaws. Human bites -- from children and adults -- usually cause bruising and a shallow tear.

Bites that break the skin may cause a variety of bacterial or viral deep-tissue infections -- including rabies, in rare instances. Infections arise from tiny organisms in the mouth of the biter and on the victim’s skin.

It’s important to care for a bite wound or injury quickly. Although you may be able to treat a superficial bite at home, you should call your doctor for advice. Deeper bites, lacerations of the skin, and cat bites often require medical care. Bites on the hand are also of particular concern because there is a higher risk of infection.

Here’s what to do when you, your child, or another person is bitten.

First Aid for Fresh Bite Wound

If there is minor bleeding, the skin is barely broken, and there is no risk of rabies:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after treating the wound.
  • Wash the area with mild soap and running water to reduce the risk of infection. Pat dry.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a clean bandage or sterile dressing.
  • To reduce swelling, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel or a cold compress (cloth soaked in cold water) to the bruise for 5-10 minutes.
  • Call your doctor to see if you need to have the bite examined. Always seek medical attention when a child has been bitten in the head.

First Aid for Deeper Animal or Human Bites

If a bite wound is bleeding and the skin is torn or deeply punctured:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after treating the wound.
  • Inspect the wound and irrigate with water to remove any dirt or lose debris.
  • Use a clean cloth, towel, or sterile bandage to apply direct pressure to the injury until the bleeding stops. Elevate the area while you apply pressure.
  • See a doctor right away. If you can't stop the bleeding after 10 minutes of pressure, call 911.

When to See a Doctor for a Bite

In some cases, a person who has been bitten by a human or animal may need a tetanus or rabies shot, antibiotics to prevent infection, X-rays for a crush injury, or immediate treatment at a hospital. Get medical attention if:

  • The bite is from a cat.
  • A dog bite is to the hand or foot.
  • A bite is deep, large, or caused a laceration of the skin that might need stitches.
  • You suspect a broken bone or other possible internal injury, or a child has been bitten on the head.
  • There are signs of infection.
  • You haven't had a tetanus shot for more than 10 years or you're not sure when your last tetanus shot was. If it's been more than five years since your last tetanus shot, the doctor may recommend a booster.
  • You have diabetes, cancer, liver or lung disease, AIDS, or a weakened immune system.