main logo
Posted by Dr. Monica Wonnacott | June 22, 2016

What To Do If An Animal Bites Your Child

A conversation with a parent yesterday about a dog bite gone awry (think awful infection that required drainage) has inspired today’s post. Turns out that people have pets, and kids like to aggravate the pets. This often ends in the unfortunate situation of the child being bitten. My experience is that parents typically over-worry about things, but bites are the one exception. Parents often underestimate the severity and dangers of animal bites.

Who’s at the biggest risk?

While bites happen at any age. Most of the bites I take care of happen in the 15-month to 3-year age range. The child this age is mobile and intrigued by the animal, but doesn’t quite understand the concept of leaving the pet alone and misses cues (like growling) that tell the child to stop. Most of the bites happen on the face and hands (makes sense, the child bends over to grab the pet making those spots easiest to bite).

When to worry about bites

First, assess the size of the animal. Is the mouth/jaw of the animal big enough/strong enough to have damage beyond the skin wound you can see? Is it possible that the deeper tissues or bones are affected? A large dog can easily snap small bones in the hands or arm of a small child.

Second, assess the flesh wound. If the teeth didn’t break the skin (and the deeper tissue isn’t significantly red, discolored, or crushed), you’re probably ok. If the skin is barely broken (think of the damage you would get from someone scratching you) where dabbing with a tissue once will clear/stop the bleeding, you are also probably ok and don’t need medical care. If the wound is deeper or bigger than that previously described, you probably should seek medical care. I know that people always say a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s (I have not fact checked that), but folks, that isn’t saying much. A dog’s mouth (and you can make the same assumption to other animals) is full of bacteria. Most animal bites will require professional cleaning and prescription oral antibiotics to prevent infection.

How to treat animal bites

If the wound is relatively small, clean it out as best as you can (try some betadine, povidone iodine, hydrogen peroxide, or even soap and water). If the wound is huge, gaping, or involves the face, don’t mess with it at all. Apply some pressure to the wound as you seek immediate medical care. Treating animal bites is very dependent on the situation. If the bite is puncture-like, usually we will not close those up. If the bite is long and causes a large gaping flap we will often sew those closed. Closing wounds from animal bites is especially tricky because those wounds are very high-risk for infection (so super careful cleaning is of utmost importance). Due the risk of infection, don’t be surprised if the medical professional cleans the wound, gets it to bleed again (washing it out with its own blood), and then cleans it again.

Do you need to get rid of the biting animal?

It is easy for me, the person taking care of the injured child, to tell you to get rid of the animal. I’m not attached to the animal. I’m actually quick to tell people not to have any animals in the first place (but that is because I come from the jaded viewpoint of regularly caring for tragic bites). However, I recognize that people love their pets and they are part of the family. So my advice is to consider the circumstances. Was the bite seriously provoked and very unlikely to happen again? If the answer is yes, you may be ok to keep the animal. If your child barely bothered the pet and still ended up getting bitten, I think history will repeat itself and you should get rid of the animal.

It’s not my animal!

If the animal that bit your child is not yours, you need to find out immediately if the animal has had all of its shots. If the answer is no or unsure, the animal needs to be quarantined (we’re worrying about rabies). If the animal bit your child and the attack was not “provoked” (meaning your child didn’t do something to make the animal mad), then we also have an increased concern for rabies and animal control needs to be involved. Any of these extenuating circumstances need to be addressed with your doctor.

Hopefully, you never have to deal with your child being bit by an animal, but just in case you do, you’ll be prepared.