Treating Dog Bites and Cat Scratches

Learn how to correctly treat and tend to dog bites and cat scratches.

Treating Dog Bites and Cat Scratches

Be Aware!

Some physicians have found cat scratch fever in patients complaining of fatigue, swollen glands, and flu-like symptoms. Sometimes a minor cat claw scratch can set off an allergic reaction or an infection, which causes the lymph glands to swell and creates flu-like problems. The symptoms of cat scratch fever usually do not last more than one week. If the symptoms last more than a week or worsen, contact a physician. If you have a fever, chills, or red streaks on your skin, you may need an oral antibiotic.

It might be true that household animals shouldn't “bite the hand that feeds them,” but sometimes a pet dog or cat will lash out even at those they love—those who walk them, feed them, and hug them.

Most of these minor injuries can be treated with alcohol and anti-bacterial ointment. These injuries include the simple nips and scratches a dog might inadvertently cause while playing. Cats sometimes use their claws as a means to get your attention. Whatever the circumstance, these injuries are accidents, and if the animal in question has had its shots, there's no reason to be alarmed.

In order for an animal wound to qualify as a bite, it must break the skin. It doesn't matter if a person accidentally hits a dog's teeth or if a cat scratches the skin. If the epidermis (skin) is broken, bacteria from the animal's saliva can seep into the open sore, which may result in infection. Animal bites can potentially be serious. For example, if a stray dog attacks someone on the street, or if a rabid cat has scratched an individual, first aid needs to be administered immediately. Use these steps to treat more serious injuries caused by animals:

  1. Stop any bleeding.
  2. Try to capture the animal, or if it's someone's pet, get the name and address of the owner. Be careful not to be the pet's next victim. If it appears the animal is a stray, leave it alone. Do not attempt to capture it.
  3. Wash the wound for five full minutes. Running water is preferable, but if supplies are limited, you can soak the affected area in water that's frequently changed (of course, you'll be wearing protective gloves). This ensures that the saliva is completely washed from the wound.
  4. Ouch!

    Do not use antibacterial lotion or cream on an animal bite. A bite is different from a cut or scrape; the bacteria in an animal's saliva can actually proliferate in certain creams!

  5. Stop bleeding from minor cuts and scratches by adding direct pressure with a clean cloth. When possible, keep the injured area elevated above the heart. This will help control the bleeding.
  6. Bandage the wound with sterile gauze and see a doctor the same day.
  7. If the injured person has not had a tetanus shot within the past eight years, make sure a physician administers the shot immediately. Any bite can make a person vulnerable to tetanus (otherwise known as “lock-jaw”).

The Danger Signs of Rabies

The only sure way to find out if a warm-blooded critter has rabies is to perform laboratory tests. However, there are certain signs that indicate the possibility of rabies. The following observations are often true of rabid animals:

  • Wild animals come close to you instead of running away.
  • The animal foams at the mouth, and its tongue hangs out.
  • The animal can't seem to catch its breath; breathing is very labored.
  • The wild animal suddenly lunges and snarls, ready to attack without provocation.

Rabies in its early stages is virtually undetectable, but there are some species that are more prone to rabies than others. If an untagged dog, bat, raccoon, skunk, fox, rat, or squirrel comes close to you, it is best to walk away slowly so as not to anger or frighten the animal.


Picture this scenario: A raccoon jumps out of the bushes and bites a friend you've been hiking with. Although your first thought is to kill the animal, you should really capture it instead. If you must kill the animal to defend yourself, try not to injure its head. Testing for rabies is conducted by examining the brain of potentially rabid creatures; that can be done even if the animal is dead.

Avoiding Injury to Yourself

There's an old saying that “If you're not good to yourself, you can't be good to anyone else.” If you yourself get hurt by the same angry dog or nasty squirrel, you won't be much help to your companion. Here are some bits of advice that might help you avoid this predicament:

  • Blow a whistle or yell loudly, and the animal should flee.
  • If the person is not too badly bitten, carry or drag him or her to a safe place.
  • This one's tough: Wait it out. As long as the animal is not continuing to attack, it's best to wait until he gets bored and leaves the scene completely.
  • If you have no other recourse, if you are an expert marksman, and if you have a weapon available, kill the animal. But make sure the brain is not damaged so it can be examined for rabies.
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