When a Dog Bites

When your pooch is fighting with another dog, you could easily become the casualty. As you try to snatch your pet’s collar, she swings around and bites your arm, leaving a nasty wound.

Dog bites commonly bring people into the emergency room, says Jonathan Jones, MD, an emergency physician in Jackson, Mississippi. Another typical scenario: young children bitten while reaching into a dog’s bowl.

“Most dog bites are from known animals, either a household pet or a neighbor’s pet,” Jones says. “I very rarely see someone bitten by a stray dog.”

If you’re bleeding heavily or feeling faint after a dog bite, call 911, he cautions.

But if a dog that you know has bruised but not punctured your skin, or if the bite barely penetrates the skin’s surface, you can treat it at home, Jones says.

First, wash the wound copiously with soap and water to cut the risk of infection.

“Soap and water are better than any antibiotic, at least initially,” he says. “Turn the tap on high, get it under there. It just needs to be clean. That by far is the number one advice.”

Then apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment. An uncovered wound heals better, Jones says, although you might need to wear a bandage at work. Change the bandage twice a day, washing the wound each time, and tell your doctor if you see signs of infection, including increased redness, pain, swelling or pus.

For any bite beyond the superficial, you’ll need prompt medical care, Jones says. “If it’s truly gone through the skin and you have significant bleeding, especially if it’s on the hand, you need to see a doctor.” Hand wounds require medical attention because hands have less blood flow, making them more prone to infection. Furthermore, treatment can reduce risk of disability to such an important body part.

Doctors will clean a bite wound and check that your tetanus vaccination is up-to-date. They usually don’t suture bites, which can raise the risk of infection, but might suture a facial bite to reduce scarring.

They’ll prescribe antibiotics, too, to prevent bacterial infection from the dog’s mouth.

If you’re bitten by an unknown or stray dog, Jones says, always see a doctor. If possible, get the name, address and phone number of the dog owner, as well as proof of rabies vaccination and the veterinarian’s contact information. Call the police so that the dog can be observed for signs of illness.

In the U.S., rabies from a dog bite is so rare that the danger is almost non-existent, according to Jones. But if you’re bitten abroad, especially in countries where dogs are feral or not routinely vaccinated, always get medical help and discuss whether you need to start rabies treatment.


Intervene: Separate fighting dogs by grabbing their hind legs and pulling them apart. Don’t reach toward their heads or necks. Still, be very cautious as dogs can turn around quickly and may bite.

Supervise: Never leave small children alone with a dog, not even the family pet.

Heed Warnings: If a dog is growling and barking in a threatening manner, stay calm, avoid eye contact and back away slowly until the dog loses interest and leaves.

Protect Yourself: If a dog knocks you over, curl up into a ball and use your arms and fists to protect your eyes and face.

Published in WebMD Magazine
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All Content Copyright Katherine Kam, 2020