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Bites and Scratches

Animal bites and scratches, even minor ones, can lead to complications. In kids, the majority of animal bites are caused by dogs.

Some bites can become infected, especially those inflicted by cats, due to the type of bacteria in the animal’s mouth. Whether the animal is a family pet or a creature from the wild, scratches and bites can carry disease. For example, cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection, can be transmitted by a cat scratch (usually from a kitten) even if the site of the scratch doesn't look infected.

A child whose tetanus shots are not up to date will need a tetanus injection after an animal bite to prevent tetanus infection. Certain animals — such as bats, raccoons, and foxes — can transmit rabies.

What to Do:

  • 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 the wound with soap and water, and hold it under running water for several minutes. Do not apply an antiseptic or anything else to the wound.
  • Dry the wound and cover it with sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
  • Phone your doctor if the bite or scratch broke or punctured the skin. A child who is bitten by an animal may need antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or rarely, a series of rabies shots. A bite or scratch on a child's hand or foot is particularly prone to infection and should be evaluated 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. Look in your phone book for the number of an animal control office or animal warden in your area.
  • Seek immediate medical care if:
    • the wound won't stop bleeding after 10 minutes of direct pressure
    • the wound appears to be deep, or is associated with severe injuries
    • the attacking animal was stray or wild or behaving strangely
    • the bite or scratch becomes red, hot, swollen, or increasingly painful

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

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: October 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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