What should I do if my child is bitten by an animal?
Treatment depends on how bad the wound is. If it's clearly minor -- nothing more than a superficial scratch -- carefully wash the area with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment twice a day. Cover the wound with an adhesive bandage if it's in an area that's likely to get dirty; otherwise, leave it exposed to the air.
If the injury is possibly serious -- if the skin is broken and bleeding -- apply a gauze pad or clean cloth to the wound and press with your fingers. Once the bleeding has stopped, cover the area with a bandage and call your doctor. If you think the wound might require stitches, take your child to the nearest emergency room. Animal bites to the face or neck are especially dangerous, since they may open up major blood vessels. If pressure doesn't stop the bleeding in a couple of minutes, call 911 for emergency medical care.
Should I worry about rabies?
Most dogs and cats in the United States are vaccinated for rabies, so they won't carry the virus that causes the disease. But if you have any doubts about the animal that has bitten your child, try to capture it. (Be careful to avoid physical contact.) If you can find the owners, ask if they can document whether the animal has been vaccinated for rabies. Animal control authorities can also check the animal for signs of rabies. Wild animals like raccoons, skunks, and bats can carry rabies. If a wild animal has bitten your child, call your doctor immediately.
What about other infections?
The most common problem following an animal bite is simple infection. The saliva of dogs and cats has been found to harbor a wide variety of bacteria, so if your child is bitten, it's important to wash the area thoroughly and apply an antibiotic ointment. If the wound is serious enough, your child's doctor may prescribe antibiotics. For any wound, even a minor one, your child may need a tetanus shot or booster.
If the wound is superficial and you treat it at home, be sure to keep an eye on it over the next few days. If it begins to look infected (red or swollen) or your child starts to run a fever or feel sick, call the doctor right away. Also see your child's doctor promptly if the bite doesn't heal within ten days.
What can I do to prevent animal bites?
Teach your children not to approach cats or dogs they don't know -- unless you tell them it's safe. Although some dog breeds can be especially dangerous -- pit bull terriers, German shepherds, Huskies, and Rottweillers, for instance -- any dog may bite if provoked. Teach your children not to go near a dog that's eating and not to touch a dog that's sleeping. Children younger than four should never be left unsupervised with pets.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
Robert H. Pantell M.D., James F. Fries M.D., Donald M. Vickery M.D., Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent's Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care. Perseus Books Publishing, L.L.C.: 1999.
Animal Bites and Infection, HealthNews, onHealth from the publishers of The New England Journal of Medicine, February 24, 1999.
American Academy of Family Physicians. Prevention and Treatment of Dog Bites. April 2001. http://www.aafp.org/afp/20010415/1567.html
eMedicine Emergency Medicine. Dog Bites. June 2009. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/768875-overview