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Animal Bites and Scratches

Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD

What Can I Do About Animal Bites and Scratches?

Animal bites and scratches, even minor ones, can sometimes lead to problems. Whether the animal is a family pet (in kids, most animal bites that are reported are from dogs) or a creature from the wild, scratches and bites can carry disease.

Some bites, especially from cats, can get infected by bacteria from the animal's mouth. And cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection, can develop from a cat scratch (usually from a kitten) even if the scratch site doesn't look infected. Some animals — such as bats, raccoons, and foxes — can spread rabies.

Kids whose tetanus shots are not up to date will need a shot (post-exposure tetanus prophylaxis) after an animal bite to prevent tetanus infection. And if the health care provider is concerned that the animal can spread rabies, they'll need a series of rabies shots.

How Do I Treat Animal Bites and Scratches?

  • If the bite or scratch wound is bleeding, apply pressure to the area with a clean bandage or towel until the bleeding stops. If available, use clean latex or rubber gloves to protect yourself and to prevent the wound from getting infected.
  • If the wound is not bleeding heavily, clean it with soap and water, and hold it under running water for several minutes.
  • Dry the wound, apply antibiotic ointment, and cover it with sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
  • Call your doctor if the bite or scratch broke or punctured the skin, even if the area is small. A child who is bitten by an animal may need antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or sometimes, a series of rabies shots. A bite or scratch on a child's face, hand, or foot is particularly at risk for infection and should be checked by your doctor as soon as possible.
  • If your child was bitten or scratched by an unfamiliar or wild animal, note the location of the animal. Some animals may have to be captured, confined, and observed for rabies. But do not try to capture the animal yourself. Instead, call the animal control office or animal warden in your area.
  • Get medical care for animal bites and scratches right away if:
    • The wound is on the face, neck, hand, foot, or near a joint.
    • The wound won't stop bleeding after 10 minutes of direct pressure.
    • The wound appears to be deep, large, or severe.
    • The attacking animal was stray or wild or behaving strangely.
    • The bite or scratch has pus coming from it, or becomes red, hot, swollen, or increasingly painful.
    • Your child has a weak immune system or other medical condition that might make an infection more likely.
    • Your child's tetanus immunizations are not up to date.

Teach your kids to stay away from wild animals, and not to tease or provoke any animals, even family pets. Animals should not be disturbed while they eat or sleep.

If you own a pet, make sure it's properly immunized and licensed.

Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: March 2023