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No matter how careful you are, dog bites can occur quite suddenly and without warning, especially if you often interact with new dogs. While most dog bites may not result in serious injury, some could have dire consequences, including death. This makes it important to keep your cool after such an incident so you can assess the damage caused and do what you can to reduce the risk of a bad outcome.

A dog bite can occur in mainly two types of situations:

  • When the dog is sick: A sick dog or one that is in pain may not want to be approached by anyone. Dogs who are infected with rabies may become more aggressive as a result of their sickness and attack.
  • When the dog is feeling threatened: If a dog is being attacked or thinks someone they love is in danger, they might lash out to provide protection.

Pet dogs may also lightly bite in playful situations or while teething. These bites are usually harmless but it’s best to check to make sure the skin isn’t broken and then discourage such habits. In this article, we will discuss the steps to take immediately after a dog bite.

  1. Signs and symptoms of a dog bite
  2. Complications of a dog bite
  3. First aid for a dog bite
  4. What to keep in mind after a dog bite
  5. Preventing a dog bite

When a dog bites a human, the main risk lies in the transfer of microbes via the dog’s saliva into the bloodstream of the patient. This could lead to infection. Following are a few signs and symptoms you may notice if a dog bite becomes infected:

  • Redness and swelling at and around the site, especially if it increases since the time of injury
  • Pain and tenderness at the site that doesn’t alleviate or at least decrease significantly within a day
  • Warmth at the wound site
  • Difficulty in moving the body part where the bite is
  • Discharge from the wound, especially if it begins to smell bad or becomes discoloured

Additionally, if you develop a fever, start to shake or experience night sweats, you should contact your doctor immediately.

While some dog bites are mostly harmless, others can lead to serious complications. Following are some such complications that may occur as the result of a dog bite:

Infection

The major concern is of contracting the following infections.

  • Rabies: Rabies is an infection of the central nervous system caused by a virus that is transmitted to humans by not only rabid dogs but other animals like bats, racoons and foxes. If not treated, the disease can reach the brain and cause death. The first signs of rabies are similar to that of the flu-like fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache, loss of appetite and nausea. They can appear anytime between a few days and a year since the bite.
  • Capnocytophaga: Capnocytophaga is a bacteria that lives in the mouth of cats and dogs without causing infection. If contracted by humans through a dog bite, some symptoms you may notice are fever, vomiting, joint pain, diarrhea, headaches and blisterings, redness, pain and swelling around the wound. The first two weeks since the bite is when these symptoms might show up. It can be treated with antibiotics but if it progresses, it could result in gangrene, heart attack or kidney failure.
  • Tetanus: While tetanus is rarely found in dogs, it can be transmitted from them to humans through a bite. If the bite has broken the skin, you may be advised by your doctor to get a tetanus shot. Tetanus may present with muscle spasms, cramping of the jaw, difficulty swallowing and muscle stiffness.
  • MRSA: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacteria that causes staph infection, which is resistant to some antibiotics, making it difficult to treat. While not commonly noted, it can be transmitted from an infected dog to a human. The wound site may become red, swollen, warm, painful and full of pus. You may also develop a fever and rash. Humans can be carriers of MRSA without developing the disease.
  • Pasteurella: It is a bacteria that can cause infections after a bite from a dog. You may experience pain, tenderness, redness and swelling at the wound site. Fever also may occur, followed by respiratory problems. Treatment includes antibiotics so do reach out to your doctor if you notice any of the symptoms.

Fracture

Depending on the severity of the bite and the size of the attacking animal, a fractured bone could also occur, usually in the extremities. The doctor you consult may check your range of motion and order imaging tests to rule a fractured or broken bone out. In case of damage to the bone, you may be given a cast for treatment.

Following are the steps to take immediately after a dog bite: 

  • Safety: Make sure the dog is confined and you’re in a safe space.
  • Cleaning: Wash the wound site with clean warm water and soap. This is done to rid the wound of any microorganism-carrying saliva, reducing the risk of infection taking hold.
  • Wound care: Apply an antibacterial ointment on and around the wound. Cover the site with a sterile bandage.
  • History: If the dog is a pet, speak to the owner about which all vaccinations they have received so far. If the dog is a stray, ask the neighbours if they might have any details - NGOs or feeders may have arranged for some vaccinations.
  • Consult: Reach out to a doctor and provide them with whatever information you have collected about the dog’s medical history so they can provide you with appropriate care after the dog bite. Even in case the dog was fully vaccinated, you may be asked to get a series of shots as a precautionary measure.

The days following a dog bite are crucial. It’s best to keep the following things in mind:

  • You need to keep an eye out for any symptoms of infection showing up and reach out to your doctor if they do. 
  • If your doctor has recommended that you get certain shots, do follow the schedule that has been set up for you as some doses may be given after a fortnight and a month of the injury. 
  • The wound may and may not be closed, so discuss appropriate care for the wound site and follow the instructions as closely as possible. 
  • The dressing may need to be changed multiple times in a day so enlist the help of a friend or family member in case you can’t reach the site comfortably. 
  • Follow up with your doctor if the wound does not begin to heal.

(Read more: Adopt a dog)

A few simple ways to prevent a dog bite are:

  • Do not approach a dog that is scared. You can tell if the dog is scared if their tail is between their legs and their ears are flat.
  • Listen to the dog parent about how to approach the dog. If they tell you to back away, do so immediately.
  • Let dogs sniff you and become comfortable with you before you initiate contact with them.
  • Avoid running away from a dog as they may take it as a challenge/game and chase you.
  • Stay still if an unknown dog approaches you as any sudden movements may feel like a threat to the dog.
  • Do not irritate the dog in the name of playing with it. For example, tugging at their tail to make it growl, messing with their food or waking them up from sleep unnecessarily.

(Read more: Rabies in dogs)

References

  1. Rutland Bronwyn E, Weese J. Scott, Bolin Carole, Au Jennifer, N Anurag. Human-to-Dog Transmission of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009 Aug; 15(8): 1328–1330. PMID: 19751611.
  2. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; Rabies
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics [internet] Illinois, United States; How should dog bites be managed to reduce risk of infection?.
  4. R J Presutti. Prevention and treatment of dog bites. Am Fam Physician. 2001 Apr 15;63(8):1567-72. PMID: 11327433.
  5. Sabhaney Vikram, Goldman Ran D. Management of dog bites in children. Can Fam Physician. 2012 Oct; 58(10): 1094–1096. PMID: 23064918.
  6. Morgan Marina, Palmer John. Dog bites. BMJ. 2007 Feb 24; 334(7590): 413–417. PMID: 17322257.
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