There are many benefits to having your child exposed to animals, but what happens when your child is injured by a cat or dog? While many people worry about animal bites from strays or stranger pets, the fact is that the majority of animal bites are caused by the family pet. Only 6 percent of bites are caused by a stray animal. Not surprisingly, most wounds seen in emergency departments occur in boys during the summer months. Approximately 15-20 percent of all bites become infected. Here’s what could happen to your child after bites or scratches.
Dog bites—Dog bites are the most common animal bite wounds treated in the United States. Multiple different types of bacteria live in the mouths of dogs and can cause infection if your child is bitten. Anywhere from 2-30 percent of these bites develop clinical signs of infection. Also, small children are at risk for fractures and skin lacerations if they are attacked by a large dog.
Cat bites—Approximately 80 percent of cats carry Pasteurella multocida in their mouths, the organism most often responsible for infection after a cat bite. Because of their sharp teeth, puncture wounds are common and can result in skin, bone, and joint infections.
Cat scratches—Contact with cats can put a child at risk for cat-scratch disease, an illness usually seen after a scratch wound caused by the organism Bartonella henselae. Usually a child will develop an enlarged lymph node on one side of the neck or under the arm.
Because of the numerous bacteria that live in an animal’s mouth, a dog or cat bite has a high chance of becoming infected. Signs to look for include redness around the site of the bite, extreme tenderness when touched, or yellowish discharge coming from the area of the wound. If your child develops any of these signs, he or she should be evaluated by a doctor right away.
Treatment typically includes irrigating the area thoroughly with saline. Serious dog bites may need to be sutured closed. Most doctors will place your child on antibiotics in an attempt to prevent an infection from developing. Your child will also be given a tetanus shot if he or she is not up to date on vaccines or it has been more than five years for older children.
The doctor may ask about the vaccination status of the animal, although rabies is quite uncommon in a domesticated animal. In the United States, rabies is primarily an infection of wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons, and bats, so you most likely do not need prophylactic rabies shots if it is a dog or cat bite.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- The majority of animal bites among infants and children are caused by the family pet.
- Up to 20 percent of all animal bites become infected, but infection with rabies is uncommon after bites from domesticated animals.
- If you see signs of infection after an animal bite (redness, swelling, etc.), take your child to a medical professional immediately for treatment.