Expert Advice for Treating Animal Bites
The Great Outdoors is, well, great, but there’s always a risk of coming face to face with one of its residents. Most of these encounters will be benign but, in some circumstances, you may not be so lucky.
Let’s face it; if it’s got a mouth, it can probably bite you, whether it’s a fire ant, a polar bear, or your senile old Uncle Fred. In this article, we’ll talk about bites from the critters you might consider cute: the ones with the nice soft fur. They may live in the woods or right in your own home.
The average person’s life is spent in close proximity to dogs, cats, and other mammals, so it pays to know about animal bites as well as their treatment and prevention.
Animal Bites Aren’t Rare
Half of all Americans will experience an animal bite in their lifetime. Bites from mammals number in the millions annually and account for 1 percent of all emergency room visits. About 90 percent of these wounds are inflicted (often upon children) by dogs and cats.
Deaths from animal bites are rare, but bleeding, nerve and tissue damage, crush injuries, infection, and pain are common, not to mention psychological trauma. Every year, tens of thousands require surgical repairs in the U.S.
Dog bites account for 80 to 90 percent of all injuries caused by animals. Although an attack from a wolf or coyote will make the news, most incidents occur from contact with someone’s pet on or near the victim’s property.
About 30 dog attacks, mostly from non-neutered male dogs, turn fatal yearly. Pit bulls, rottweilers, Dobermans, German shepherds, and huskies are some of the breeds most likely to cause significant bite injuries. Their victims are commonly young children.
Dogs and other canines have 42 teeth as adults. These are designed to rip, shred, and tear flesh. As a result, some of the more severe canine bite wounds may have gaping lacerations, sometimes with flesh torn off. Swelling from the pressure of the bite or infection is also common.
Wolf and Coyote Bites
The wolf and the coyote may appear similar, but the size and strength of the coyote can’t compare to that of a gray wolf, and the same can be said of their bite. Wolf bites exert about twice the pressure of a German shepherd bite.
Their bite is so powerful that they can chew through the femurs of elk and moose. Coyotes, on the other hand, have a bite similar to that of a medium size dog.
For various reasons, wolves haven’t adapted as well to encroaching civilization as the coyote, which has actually increased its range over the decades. You’re much more likely to run afoul of a coyote in your suburban neighborhood.
Contrary to the opinions of some, wolves and coyotes will attack humans if the opportunity arises. The most recent fatal attacks occurred this century.
A young man in Saskatchewan, Canada ,was killed in 2005 by healthy wolves that had become accustomed to people. In 2009, a young woman was killed by coyotes in Canada and in 2010 a young woman died from a wolf attack while jogging in Alaska.
Cat bites represent between 5 and 15 percent of all animal bites sustained by humans, although many cases aren’t reported due to the small size of the injury. The most aggressive breeds are usually hybrids with genetics that come from wild cats, such as Bengals.
Even if the amount of trauma is small, puncture wounds by cat teeth can be deep and are more likely to cause infection than dog bites. Infection occurs in 10 to 15 percent of dog bites but close to 50 percent of cat bites. One reason may be the depth of the wound.
Not only is it difficult to clean the site, but the needle-like teeth push bacteria deep into flesh, tendons and joints. The organisms find the environment favorable and multiply, causing swelling, redness and pain.
In addition to their 30 teeth, domestic cats also use their claws in attack or defense, causing scratches that can lead to infection with bartonella, aka cat scratch fever.
Bobcat, Lynx and Cougar Bites
Attacks by large cats such as mountain lions are rare, but fatalities occurred in 2018 in Oregon and Washington. Injuries include lacerations, broken bones and crush damage.
Smaller wildcats such as bobcats and lynxes, if healthy, are shy and avoid contact with humans, but they can inflict deep bites and, unlike domestic cats, deep claw wounds as well.
Some of the largest mammals on the continent, bears cause claw as well as bite wounds. There are three distinct species in North America to worry about: black bears, brown bears (including the grizzly) and polar bears.
Of the three, the polar bear is the largest and has the strongest bite. The damage caused by bear bites includes broken bones, loss of soft tissue and severe hemorrhage.
Along with wolves and mountain lions, bears are some of the few North American animals that may show predatory behavior toward humans.
As wounds can be large and ragged, difficult surgical repairs may be required to reconstruct damaged tissue, tendons, muscles and joints.
The Rodentia family is characterized by a pair of continuously growing incisors in the upper and lower jaws. Members include rats, mice, squirrels, beavers, porcupines and many other animals. Indeed, they comprise about 40 percent of all mammal species.
Rabbits were once considered rodents, but are now categorized as a related group called lagomorphs. The teeth of all these animals can be quite long and sharp and, thus, inflict smaller but very painful bites.
Rat bites are the most common rodent type to generate a visit to an emergency room. The wounds may be shallow or deep.
The main concern with rodent bites is the diseases the animals transmit, such as rat bite fever and tularemia, commonly spread by rabbits.
OTHER SMALL MAMMALS
Other small mammals capable of delivering a nasty bite include raccoons, opossums, skunks and foxes (foxes can be included under canines, but belong to the genus Vulpes, not Canis like dogs, wolves, and coyotes).
Although painful, most traumatic injury is minor. Some of these animals, however, are known carriers of the rabies virus. Raccoons, skunks and foxes can all carry the disease. Rabies seems to be very rare in opossums, possibly due to lower body temperatures than the average mammal.
They may look like flying mice, but bats belong to the Chiroptera family, not Rodentia. Like any wild animals, they may bite if disturbed or handled. The trauma from a bat bite is usually minimal and is sometimes not even noticed by the victim.
Any bite or scratch from a bat should be considered a risk. Unlike other animals, bats with rabies may not look ill, so the danger sign is unusual behavior. Any bat out and about by day, unable to fly, or not concerned by proximity to humans may have rabies.
TREATING ANIMAL BITES
Most small animal bites don’t cause significant trauma. Larger mammals, however, are another matter.
There are defensive or warning animal bites and then there are animal attacks, where the victim is knocked down by a substantial adversary, bitten repeatedly, and in some cases injured by claws.
Thankfully, these are few and far between, but those injured may have multiple bleeding lacerations with significant soft tissue damage.
“HALF OF ALL AMERICANS WILL EXPERIENCE AN ANIMAL BITE IN THEIR LIFETIME. BITES FROM MAMMALS NUMBER IN THE MILLIONS ANNUALLY AND ACCOUNT FOR 1 PERCENT OF ALL EMERGENCY ROOM VISITS. ”
Major injuries should be treated as you would any trauma. Abolish the threat to the victim (and yourself). Large mammals such as bears may return for round two, so leave the area if possible.
If a bite wound is severe and actively bleeding, place a dressing or cloth barrier on it immediately and apply firm direct pressure (preferably with gloved hands). If the first barrier becomes saturated, pack fresh ones right on top of the first.
If the bleeding is bright red and spurting from the site, a better first step is to apply a tourniquet. Some of the most popular models include the C-A-T, SOFTT and SWAT-T.
Having a good supply of sterile bandages, as well as hemostatic dressings (QuikClot, CELOX, or ChitoSam), would also be helpful for hemorrhage control and to protect the wound. If you use one of these special blood-clotting products, remove saturated bandages first and pack the hemostatic dressing at the point of bleeding. Cover with a pressure dressing.
In most small mammal bites, the marks left may seem insignificant. Any puncture of the skin, however, is something to worry about. Skin is the body’s armor; any breach leaves the victim open to infection. Any person who has been bitten by an animal should:
- Seek medical care by qualified professionals if at all possible, especially if the skin is broken
- Control bleeding as mentioned above
- Clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water for several minutes. Flushing the wound aggressively with a 60-100 cc irrigation syringe filled with clean water will help remove embedded dirt and bacteria-containing saliva. This should be done even if the skin is intact; it’s important to wash off any oral bacteria deposited there by the animal.
- Use an antiseptic to decrease the chance of infection. Betadine (2 percent povidone-iodine solution) or benzalkonium chloride (BZK) are reasonable choices.
- Remove any rings or bracelets in a bite wound to the hand. If swelling occurs, they may be very difficult to remove afterward.
- Use an ice pack to decrease swelling, bruising and pain.
- Apply antibiotic ointment to the area and watch for signs of wound infection. These may include redness, swelling or oozing. In many instances, the site might feel unusually warm to the touch. Warm moist compresses to the area will help an infected wound producing pus to drain.
- Frequently clean and cover a recovering bite wound.
- Give medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat pain at the wound site. Avoid aspirin for pain in children under the age of 16 due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome, a potentially fatal illness.
- If the bite has severed a body part, wash it with clean water, wrap it in a sterile dressing and store it in ice to transport with the victim to advanced medical care. If modern medical facilities can be accessed, a severed finger or ear might be surgically reattached.
Children who suffer animal bites may become traumatized by the experience and benefit from counseling. Youngsters should be informed about the risks of animal bites and taught to avoid stray dogs, cats and wild animals.
Never leave a small child unattended around animals: Without an able-bodied person to intervene, the outcome may be tragic.
Normally, tetanus booster shots are given to adults every 10 years. In the case of bite wounds, an extra injection is often recommended.
It is important to remember that humans are animals, too. In rare cases, you might see bites from this source as well. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of human bites become infected, due to the fact that there are over 100 million bacteria per milliliter in human saliva.
Treat as you would any contaminated wound.
MORE ABOUT INFECTION
The risk of infection exists whenever a violent encounter occurs between animal and human. Diseases such as rabies and tetanus are still occasionally seen in the U.S., and certain types of animals can transmit other diseases as well.
These may cause them to be sick and irritable, leading them to bite. Other disease-causing organisms, also known as pathogens, use the animal as a vector, that is, a carrier that remains healthy but can pass the microbe to humans.
Bite wounds are notorious for causing infections. Bacteria exist in the mouths of animals; they might be native to the animal or come from prey that has been recently eaten. Occasionally, bacteria from soil, feces or the victim’s own skin may be involved.
In survival settings, oral antibiotics are valuable tools in the medical toolbox to prevent and treat infection in bite wounds. You won’t usually know exactly what bacteria you’re trying to kill, but common medications used for bites include seven days of amoxicillin with clavulanic acid 500 mg every 8 hours as a first line choice, with additional options such as clindamycin (veterinary equivalent: Fish-Cin) 300 mg orally every 6 hours and ciprofloxacin (Fish Flox) 500 mg every 12 hours in combination; azithromycin; metronidazole; and ampicillin-sulbactam as possibilities. Side effects of and allergies to the different medications must be taken into account.
Should a bite wound be surgically closed? Many animal bite wounds are closed if a modern medical facility is accessible, but this may be inadvisable in a survival setting.
Any animal bite should be considered a dirty wound; closing the wound may lock in dangerous bacteria. Frequent cleaning and dressing changes may be a safer choice with possibly contaminated injuries.
A delayed closure may be performed in some cases if no signs of infection appear after three days of close observation.
Bacterial infections that can be transmitted through animal bites include cat scratch fever, rat bite fever, staph, strep, tetanus and tularemia. The issue that concerns most public health officials, however, is a virus: rabies.
Rabies is caused by members of the genus Lyssavirus. The disease is transmitted when an infected animal scratches or bites another animal or human.
Splatter, especially from saliva, can spread infection if it gets into the eyes, mouth or nose of someone nearby.
“SHOULD A BITE WOUND BE SURGIALLY CLOSED? … ANY ANIMAL BITE SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A DIRTY WOUND; CLOSING THE WOUND MAY LOCK IN DANGEROUS BACTERIA.”
Globally, dogs are the most common domestic animal to have the disease, accounting for more than 99 percent in many countries.
In the Americas, however, various wildlife is more likely. Bat and raccoon bites are the most common source of rabies infections in the U.S. (less than 5 percent of cases are from dogs). Rodents are often blamed, but they’re very rarely infected with rabies.
Reptiles and other non-mammals don’t contract the disease; you won’t get rabies from a snake bite.
The period between infection and the first symptoms (the incubation period) is typically 1 to 3 months in humans, but can be much longer. This, along with a death rate of almost 100 per cent if untreated, is the reason humans suspected of being exposed are given a series of vaccinations and antibodies as soon as possible.
Symptoms usually begin as fever and headache, but the illness progresses to affect the nervous system, causing paralysis in many cases.
Rabies causes significant alterations in mental status, including confusion, agitation, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, and general delirium.
One unusual sign of rabies is hydrophobia, the fear of water. Because of a victim’s difficulty swallowing despite severe thirst, water seems to cause panic in those infected.
It’s at this point that victims produce a large amount of saliva, making them appear to foam at the mouth. There is no curative treatment; death usually occurs within a few days after symptoms appear.
PREVENTING ANIMAL BITES
This article is not about animal encounter safety, but the simplest way to prevent animal bites is to stay away from wildlife and unfamiliar domestic animals.
With known domestic animals, try to discourage aggressive play, and closely monitor children at all times. If you handle animals often, wear personal protection gear.
Different strategies exist for bear, cougar and canine encounters. For example, maintaining eye contact is encouraged with cougars and discouraged with dogs. All, however, recommend not running away; this is considered prey behavior that can trigger a predatory response.
If you’re alone and encounter a large carnivore, try to appear as large as possible and, given the chance, back away slowly in the direction you came.
Carry bear spray in areas where large carnivores are present. You’re safest in the company of others; even bears will hesitate to attack groups of more than two people.
Adventure Medical Kits
+44 (0)1270 500019
Doom and Bloom Medical
North American Rescue
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.