17 January 2012

Human and animal bites

Just how dangerous are human and animal bites, and how should they be treated?


A guesthouse owner was on Monday acquitted on a charge of murder after the bite he had given a security guard caused the guard’s death six days later. Just how dangerous are human bites, and how should they be treated?

Dogs are the most likely domestic pets to cause animal bites. Most cases involve children. But most people would be surprised to find out that human and cat bites actually carry a much higher risk of infection. Apart from causing injury and septic wounds, there is a chance that animal bites may transmit tetanus and, in rare cases, rabies.

If the skin has been broken by a human bite, ask your GP whether an HIV test or antiretrovirals may be necessary.

Here's what to do in the case of a human or animal bite.

Home treatment:

  • If the wound barely breaks the skin, treat it as a minor wound. Scrub the bite thoroughly with soap and running water. Apply antibiotic cream and a loose sterile bandage.
  • If the bite creates a deep puncture of the skin or the skin is badly torn, allow for some bleeding to cleanse the wound and see your doctor.
  • If the animal has an identifiable owner, enquire whether it is currently vaccinated against rabies. Even if that is the case, it should be observed and quarantined by a veterinarian for the next 10 days to see if it develops symptoms of rabies.
  • If the animal is stray, wild or there is no documented proof of vaccination, contact the local health department. The animal should be assumed as being positive for rabies and you should start receiving treatment for rabies within 48 hours (see below). If the animal is caught, it should be euthanised to test for rabies. Only if the test is negative, can treatment be stopped.

See a doctor if :

  • The wound is deep, especially if it is a puncture wound. Cat and human bites (even cuts on knuckles caused by a fight) should always be seen by a doctor.
  • You have been bitten on the face, hand, foot or neck, or over a joint.
  • You suspect that the animal may be rabid or the bite is from a wild or stray animal, or if definite proof cannot be found of current vaccination of the animal.
  • You haven't had a tetanus injection within the past five years.
  • There are signs of infection.

Prevention of dog bites

  • Most dog bites can be prevented. Teach children not to disturb dogs while they eat, sleep or care for puppies. Children should never be left alone with a dog. Neuter your dog.
  • If a dog approaches, stay calm. Teach your children to stand still – "like a tree". Never pet a dog without letting it sniff you.
  • If a dog threatens to attack, stay calm, talk in a firm voice and avoid eye contact. Don't scream. Back away slowly and don't turn and run – a dog will always outrun you.
  • If a dog attacks, curl up into a ball to protect your face, neck and head.


Last updated: June 2010



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Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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