If a Dog Bites You, Do These 6 Things Now

Infection is the biggest danger
Woman's leg with dog bite wound

You’re playing with your dog, and somehow, between growls and tail wags, it can happen. Those canine teeth can bite or scratch. Or alternatively, you could be walking down a street and an unknown mutt can attack without warning.

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Either way, there are steps you need to take right away to treat the wound and reduce the risk of infection. You’ll need professional medical attention the same day.

A dog’s front teeth will grab and compress your tissue, and their smaller teeth can also tear your skin. The result is an open, jagged wound. If the wound becomes infected, it is often severe, says emergency medicine physician Stephen Sayles III, MD.

“The No. 1 concern with these bites is infection,” he says. “You may need hospitalization and require intravenous antibiotics. You should always see a primary care provider if you’re bitten.”

No matter what, make sure you see a doctor within eight hours of a dog bite, he says. Waiting longer raises your infection risk. If you have diabetes or are immunocompromised, your infection risk is even greater.

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6 steps to treating a dog bite

If a dog bites you, take these steps right away:

  1. Wash the wound. Use mild soap, and run warm tap water over it for five to 10 minutes.
  2. Slow the bleeding with a clean cloth.
  3. Apply over-the counter antibiotic cream if you have it.
  4. Wrap the wound in a sterile bandage. Keep the wound bandaged and see your doctor.
  5. Change the bandage several times a day once your doctor has examined the wound.
  6. Watch for signs of infection, including redness, swelling, increased pain and fever.

What will your doctor do?

Your doctor will want to know more about the dog that bit you and how it happened. He or she will also likely clean the wound again, apply antibiotic ointment and prescribe antibiotics, such as Augmentin, if there’s an infection concern.

After any bite, you should make sure you know when your last tetanus shot was — and that you’re up-to-date. While a tetanus immunization is good for 10 years, Dr. Sayles notes, your doctor may recommend a booster if the wound is dirty and it’s been more than five years since your last shot.

Depending on the wound, your doctor may also recommend stitches. Generally, though, dog wounds are left open to heal unless they are on the face or if they could leave particularly severe scars if left unsutured.

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Bacteria from bites raises infection risk

Roughly 50% of dog bites introduce bacteria, including staphylococcus, streptococcus and pasteurella, as well as capnocytophaga.

Unvaccinated and feral dogs can also potentially carry — and transfer — rabies, so your doctor will want to know details about the dog that bit you.

Ultimately, Dr. Sayles says, caring for a dog bite is about keeping bacteria from causing an infection.

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