How to treat a dog bite


by Baylor Scott & White Health

May 21, 2021

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but even the friendliest furry friend can bite. More than 4.5 million people report being bitten by dogs each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here are some fast facts for you:

  • Roughly 1 in 5 people who receive a dog bite require medical attention.
  • Children are at the highest risk for dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured.
  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) states that infection is the number one reason for hospitalization.

“If you’re bitten by a dog, it is important to seek medical attention,” said Dorian Drigalla, MD, FACEP, emergency medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be that second, minute or even within an hour, but waiting a couple of days is a bad idea.”

So, you were bitten by a dog. Now what? Here’s how to care for your bite injury.

First aid for a dog bite wound

The most common type of dog bites are facial and hand bites in children and hand and lower extremity bites in adults. It’s important to know how to treat an open wound and when to seek medical treatment.

“If the wound is open, such as a cut or a laceration, the most important thing to do is to irrigate or clean it,” Dr. Drigalla said.

Follow these steps to care for a dog bite:

  1. Try to calm and comfort the person. Wear gloves (if possible) and wash your hands thoroughly before and after attending to the wound.
  2. If the bite is not severely bleeding, thoroughly wash the wound with mild soap and water for three to five minutes.
  3. Then, apply antibiotic ointment and a clean dressing to the bite.
  4. If the bite is actively bleeding, apply pressure directly to the wound with a clean, dry cloth until the bleeding stops. Raise the area of the bite above the heart.
  5. If bitten on the hand or fingers, seek medical attention immediately.
  6. Watch the bite area over the next 24 to 48 hours for signs of infection such as increasing skin redness, warmth, swelling and pain.
  7. Call the doctor or take the person to an emergency room if the bite becomes infected.

What to do if you are bitten by a dog

Classify the dog

“There are a lot of people who will say that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s mouth,” Dr. Drigall said. “Depending on the location, some dog bites may never get infected or become a problem of any kind. One of the first things you want to do after being bitten is to classify the dog.”

  • Is this your dog that you know to be healthy and rabies-free?
  • Were you bitten by a random dog that you’ve never seen before?
  • Was the dog aggressive?

“An aggressive dog may have rabies, and it will determine how the patient is treated,” Dr. Drigall said.

If it’s your dog

Even your dog may have bacteria present in its mouth with the potential to cause infection. For that reason, many physicians will place patients on antibiotics to prevent infection. The location of the bite, such as the hand or face, will also determine the use of antibiotics.

“The hand has small compartments that tend to get infected,” Dr. Drigalla said.

Even if you don’t receive antibiotics, a doctor may recommend a follow-up visit to check for infection.

If it’s not your dog

A bite from an unknown dog is more alarming, especially if the animal behaves irrationally or bites without being provoked. If this happens, see a doctor immediately. It is also good to remember that most dogs that bite without warning won’t have rabies, thanks to mandatory dog vaccination programs in the US.

The CDC estimates around 60 to 70 dogs are reported rabid each year. It’s important to stay up to date on your rabies vaccine, though.

Preventing dog bites

Any dog can bite, even the sweetest pet, if provoked. Remember, it is not a dog’s breed that determines whether it will bite, but rather the dog’s personal history and behavior. Most dog bites are preventable.

Visit the American Veterinary Medical Association for more resources on dog bite prevention.

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