When to Go to the ER for an Animal Bite

The most common animal bites in the United States are caused by dogs, cats, and other household pets. About 1% of all emergency room visits in the US occur due to animals biting people. Children are the most common group to suffer bites from dogs, cats, and other pets. 

We have all seen news stories about family pets inexplicably attacking owners or stray dog packs attacking people walking in the community. 

What are the potential problems stemming from animal bites, and when should you head to the ER?

Potential Issues from Animal Bites

Animal bites can result in infections, deep wounds, and broken bones. The old adage that dogs don’t have bacteria in their mouths that is harmful to humans is false.

Dogs and cats do have dangerous bacteria in their mouths that can be transferred to human skin or introduced into the tissues or bloodstream if the bite breaks the skin. 

Cats have narrow, sharp teeth that can deeply penetrate the skin. Sometimes tooth fragments may break off in the wound. These bites become infected quickly, especially when the bite is on the hand, face, or joint.

Aggressive dogs can rip flesh, and the victim often requires stitches. Also, many dogs can bite hard enough to fracture bones and damage joints. Stray or feral animals and livestock may carry rabies, which can be fatal in humans. 

Another common consequence of animal bites is tetanus. You can prevent tetanus in yourself and your children by maintaining your tetanus immunization. Most children receive their first dose as babies in the DPT vaccine (Diphtheria, Pertussis, and Tetanus). Everyone should receive a booster at least every ten years.

Reptile and insect bites can also send someone to the ER. Snake bites require immediate care if you don’t know whether the snake is poisonous. Be prepared to describe the snake to the emergency room staff. 

Some spider bites can be dangerous. For example, the brown recluse spider can cause severe tissue damage. If you see any of the following symptoms after being bit by a spider, seek emergency care:

  • Redness and warmth surrounding the bite
  • Severe pain at the bite location or anywhere else in the body
  • Vomiting or severe cramping
  • Drainage from the bite

Some people are allergic to bee and wasp stings. Call your doctor if you develop a large rash or swelling around the sting area or if the pain or swelling lasts more than a few days.

Seek emergency care if you see or experience any signs of an allergic reaction after a bite, such as:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or tightness of the throat
  • Swelling in the face
  • Dizziness or fainting

Go to the emergency room for any severe wound or signs of a severe allergic reaction.

Family First ER offers a full range of emergency services that treat more than just trauma to the body. Learn more here.

Home First Aid for Animal and Insect Bites

If you or someone else suffers a bite, the first thing to do is clean the wound.

Wash the bite area with soap and water. If the individual is bleeding from the bite, apply pressure using sterile gauze or a clean cloth. When the bleeding stops, put antibiotic ointment on the bite and cover the area with a bandage or sterile gauze. Provide pain relieving medicine if needed, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. 

If the bite is from a stray or wild animal or a pet that is not current on its vaccinations, go to the doctor. Also, seek medical assistance for bites from animals that are acting strangely.

If the bite breaks the skin or is on the face, head, neck, hand, or near a joint, or if it becomes hot, red, swollen, or more painful, it’s best to have a doctor look at it. If signs of infection set in or increase rapidly in severity, go to the emergency room immediately.

Be prepared to tell the staff the following information:

  • The kind of animal that bit the individual
  • The date of the animal’s last rabies vaccination, if known
  • The animal’s location, if known
  • Any recent unusual behavior from the animal
  • Whether the animal was a stray, wild, or captured by local animal control services
  • A list of medications the individual is allergic to
  • The person’s immunization record

If you are able to take a photo of the animal for future reference, do so only if you can without risking your safety.


To avoid an animal bite, monitor your child around all animals, even pets. Always ask a pet’s owner for permission to pet the animal before doing so. Teach your children not to tease pets and to handle them gently.

Additionally, teach your children to avoid strange animals, even if they look like pets. Many animals become aggressive if cornered or feel as though they are in danger.

Follow the same guidelines as an adult. Never go near wild animals when camping or on a hike. Don’t feed wild animals or try to sneak up on them. If you find yourself accidentally near a wild animal, back away slowly and remain calm. When planning a camping or hiking trip, it may be helpful to research the wildlife native to the area and how best to avoid contact with them.

What’s the difference between an ER and an urgent care facility? Here’s what you should know.

When to Go to the ER for Animal Bites

Any severe or copiously bleeding wound requires emergency care. Dog bites can easily tear the skin and underlying muscle and even break bones. If someone is bitten on the hand, face, neck, head, or near a joint, seek emergency assistance to reduce the chances of infection and tissue or bone damage.

Bites from feral or wild animals should always receive emergency care. Bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes often carry rabies. Livestock may also carry rabies as they are vulnerable themselves to wild animal bites. 

Signs of rabies in animals include: 

  • Aggressive behavior from animals that are typically shy
  • Unprovoked attacks from animals
  • Drooling 
  • Running in circles
  • Appearing paralyzed

If a bite appears infected, especially if the bite breaks the skin, the emergency room staff can ensure the infection doesn’t spread. 

All snake bites from unknown snakes are emergencies. Unless you know for sure the snake isn’t venomous, an ER physician should evaluate the bite.

Visit Family First ER for Animal Bite Care

Family First ER is fully staffed with experienced healthcare professionals ready to treat animal and insect bites any time of the day or night. Immediate care is necessary to prevent severe infections and serious consequences from wounds and broken bones. 

If you have any questions, contact us.