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What to do about dog bites

Brown white and black dog smiling advice

An infection from the bacteria in a dog's mouth is relatively common.

© Shutterstock

Dog bites are fairly common, whether it's you being bitten or your dog by another dog. But how seriously should you take it? And should you or your dog seek medical attention?

By Dr Karen Ingleby BVetMed MRCVS

Updated on the 11/08/2020, 15:46

There are around 8.5 million dogs in the United Kingdom and, although we classify dogs as ‘man’s best friend’, it is an unfortunate fact that dog bites are relatively common. Whether it is a bite from a stray dog or from a dog that you know, it can often require medical attention.

What should you do if you get bitten by a dog?

The most important thing to do after you have been bitten by a dog is to clean the wound immediately by running warm tap water over it for a couple of minutes, even if the skin does not appear to be broken. Make sure that you remove any hair or dirt and encourage the wound to bleed slightly by gently squeezing it, unless it's already bleeding freely. If it is bleeding, put a clean towel or sterile dressing over it and apply pressure, then seek medical attention. If the bite has not broken the skin and the injury is very minor, then medical attention may not be needed. Take painkillers if you're in pain, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. If the dog that bit you is not your own, it is worth getting the name and address of the owner and any witnesses if possible.

How do you treat a minor dog bite?

If the dog bite has not broken the skin and there is no other pain or likelihood of damage, then clean the bite area and take pain killers if required. Keep an eye on the area over the next week and, if you are at all concerned, then seek medical attention.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Do I need a tetanus shot after a dog bite?

In the UK a tetanus vaccination is given as part of the childhood vaccination programme that involves five vaccinations starting from a baby to the last one given around the age of 14. If you have had the full course, then this should provide long-lasting protection against tetanus.

But if you or your child has a deep or dirty wound such as a dog bite, when you seek medical attention they will assess how long ago you last had an injection and, if it is more than five years ago, the doctor may decide to give you a booster injection.

When should I get a tetanus vaccine after a dog bite?

If you have a dog bite with broken skin, you should immediately seek medical attention. Then the medical adviser will decide if you need a tetanus injection.

When should you go to the doctor for a dog bite?

If the bite has broken the skin or there is severe discomfort, you should seek immediate medical attention after cleaning the wound.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Is swelling normal after a dog bite?

Just like any knock or fall, there is likely to be some swelling and bruising in the area after any form of dog bite, due to the trauma caused by the dog’s teeth. This is likely to get worse over the first few days and then start to go away. During this time, you may want to use some anti-inflammatory pain relief. If the swelling and pain continues to get worse past 2-3 days, then consult a medical professional.

How do you know if a dog bite is serious?

Dogs’ mouths have lots of different bacteria in them and some of these can be quite dangerous to people. Also, a severe bite can damage tendons, ligaments and even bones, depending on where the injury is. Therefore, if the bite has broken the skin, we would always advise seeking medical attention.

How long after a dog bite does infection set in?

It is difficult to say exactly how long it takes for an infection to set in after a bite, as it will depend on how deep the wound is and what bacteria is causing the infection. But, as a rule, most wounds that are infected will show symptoms within two to five days, but this can actually range anywhere from one to 14 days.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

How do you tell if a dog bite is infected?

Warning signs that may suggest a wound has become infected include: redness and swelling around the wound, the wound feeling warm and increasingly painful, liquid or yellow pus leaking from the wound, having a temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above, experiencing sweats and chills, having swollen glands under the chin or in the neck, armpits or groin, or seeing red streaks extending along the skin from the wound. If you are experiencing all or some of these symptoms in the days following a dog bite, then seek immediate medical attention.

Do all dog bites need antibiotics?

No, not all dog bites require antibiotics. When you see a medical professional, they will assess the wound and likelihood of infection and decide if you need a course of antibiotics to prevent infection.

Do dog bites get infected easily?

It depends if the wound breaks the skin or not and then, if it does, where the bite is and how bad it is. It also depends how quickly afterwards the wound was washed. Yet, if the wound is not washed quickly after the bite, then an infection from the bacteria in a dog's mouth is relatively common.

Do dog bites need stitches?

Deciding whether to stitch a dog bite wound can only be done by medically trained people. Sometimes they will close the wound with stitches, if the risk of infection is thought to be low. But high-risk wounds will usually be left open as this means they're easier to keep clean and allows the infection to drain from the site.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What to do if a dog bites you and draws blood

The most important thing to do after you have been bitten is to clean the wound immediately by running warm tap water over it for a couple of minutes. Make sure that you remove any hair or dirt then put a clean towel or sterile dressing over it, apply pressure and seek medical attention.

How long do dog bites take to heal?

It is hard to say exactly how long a dog bite will take to heal, as it will depend on how severe it is and if it gets infected. It could take as little as seven days for the skin to heal, yet the bruising and swelling around the bite could be uncomfortable for a few weeks. Cleaning the wound and seeking immediate medical attention will make sure the bite gets the best treatment and will hopefully reduce the time you take to recover.

How do I treat a dog bite on my dog?

If you see another dog bite your dog, if it is not too dangerous for you, you should remove your dog from the situation. If your dog can walk, then let it so you can see if it walks normally. Be careful when you examine your dog’s injuries because even the gentlest of dogs can react by biting when they are scared and hurt.

In general, just like in humans, we would advise all dog bite wounds are assessed by a vet, as even a small puncture hole can have severe damage deeper in the tissue. If the wound is very dirty and you can, flush it with warm water and then apply a dressing. If there is a lot of blood loss, the most important thing to do is apply pressure if your dog will let you. Then seek veterinary attention.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What symptoms might I see on my dog that may suggest it has a dog bite?

Sometimes it is difficult to know if your dog has been bitten, if you weren’t present and there aren’t any large wounds. Quite often with dog bites they create a small hole or puncture wound, and these can be hard to see, especially in long haired breeds.

If untreated, the infection can result in your dog showing many different clinical signs including swelling or redness in a certain area, not wanting to walk, not wanting to eat, or it may cry or snap when you stroke it. You may suddenly see a wet area on their coat or some clear or yellow pus. They may start panting because they have a temperature and act generally dull and lethargic. If you are worried, then please seek veterinary advise.

What are the levels of dog bites?

The dog biting levels that are sometimes discussed by dog behaviourists or vets are a way of assessing how dangerous a dog is, based on the amount of injury caused when it bites. Depending on which scale you look at the levels are 1-6 or 1-10, with 1 being the dog snaps or lunges and doesn’t touch/damage skin. The higher the level, the more dangerous the dog is assessed to be. This allows vets to then decide if this animal can be helped to stop this behaviour or not.

When should I see a vet?

If you have seen your dog get bitten or be in a fight or if you have found a wound that is suspicious of this, then visit a vet to get it assessed. The vet is likely to want to flush the wound out and prescribe some pain relief, and it may require a tetanus injection, antibiotics or, if it is more serious, further investigation may be required.