Bite Wounds: What Should I Do?

By: Christine New, DVM

TVMA Member
Dallas, Texas

Published November 2014

Bite wounds should always be assessed by a veterinary professional. Bite wounds are typically puncture wounds. They are usually accompanied by pain, swelling and infection. Infection occurs because of several reasons, the first being that the actual bite implants bacteria from the biter’s mouth under the bitten pet’s skin. Secondly, the bitten pet will commonly lick the wounds. The common remark that a pet’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s mouth and that pets should be allowed to lick their injuries is actually a misconception. Dog and cat mouths house millions of bacteria. Allowing pets to lick their wounds results in an increased risk of infection, additional trauma and delayed healing. Pets should never be allowed to lick them, and placement of an Elizabethan collar around the pet’s head and neck will help prevent this from occurring. Environmental contamination (dirt, hair, other debris) also serves as a source of bacterial infection in wounds.

How Your Veterinarian Treats Wounds

At your veterinary clinic, a pain injection may be administered, and then puncture wounds will be clipped and cleaned aseptically. All of the hair should be clipped from the wounds as hair serves as a highway for contamination into the wound and is a source of bacteria. Some wounds can be closed surgically, but some bite wounds should be left open. Factors that your veterinarian considers when deciding when to close a wound are the age of the wound, the degree of contamination and the size/depth of the wound. Old wounds and very dirty wounds should be left open initially but potentially can be closed at a later time. Small or superficial wounds may scab over and heal without the aid of any sutures or staples. Placement of drain tubes when closing bite wounds is a common practice to facilitate drainage of the wounds.

Risk for Complications

Any bite wound has the potential to form an extensive infection called an abscessA swollen area within body tissue, containing an accumulation of pus.. Abscesses are complications of bite wounds and must be surgically opened and drained and then allowed to heal as an open wound. Risk for abscess formation is higher in older, very contaminated wounds, or wounds that have a large amount of open space (dead space) remaining underneath after closure. One with significant dead space should have a drain tube placed to decrease the risk of abscess formation. When drain tubes are surgically placed, the tube is typically removed within one to five days or when drainage has stopped.

Further Testing

If your pet has been bitten on the chest or abdomen, X-rays or an ultrasound may be needed to rule out internal injuries. Even if there are not any visible puncture wounds on the outside, a small dog or cat that has been bitten or shaken by a larger animal may have extensive crushing injuries to internal organs, internal bleeding or damage to the body wall resulting in a herniaA condition in which part of an organ is displaced and protrudes through the wall of the cavity containing it (often involving the intestine at a weak point in the abdominal wall)., which requires major surgery. Your veterinarian may also recommend that your pet remain in the hospital for observation for a period of time.

If your pet has been bitten on a leg and cannot walk or if there is a large degree of swelling, X-rays will help rule out a fracture. Bite wounds over fractures require special surgical management, splints or casts and frequent bandage changes.

Medications

In nearly every case, your veterinarian will start antibiotics and may also start pain medication depending on the severity of the bite and your pet’s demeanor. Always inform your veterinarian of any medications your pet is currently taking or has recently taken. This includes over-the-counter medications and supplements. Once your pet returns home, it is important to keep bite wounds clean and dry. Hydrogen peroxide is not recommended, as it can be irritating and slow healing. Ask your family veterinarian how they prefer that you keep your pet’s wound clean. If a bandage was placed, it needs to be regularly checked for wetness, dirt, blood and tightness. Bandages on the legs need to be protected when outside to prevent the wound from becoming wet and dirty. If your pet’s bandage becomes wet or soiled, immediately contact your veterinarian. A wet, dirty bandage increases the risk of infection.

All recommended follow-up appointments with your veterinarian should be kept and scheduled on time so that the healing process can be appropriately monitored.

Dr. Christine New practices veterinary medicine at the Hillside Veterinary Clinic in Dallas.