In this article I’ll be addressing some common questions about animal bites on the hand. Animal bites are a fairly common occurrence, and can cause significant pain to the person sustaining the injury. Rapid treatment is the best way to minimize damage and pain in the hand.
The majority of animal bites in the United States come from dogs. Cat bites are far more rare, but are more likely to cause infection in the hand. This is because they have long, pointed teeth that can cause deep puncture wounds.
Will I be infected by an animal bite?
Cats are the most likely out of any group of domesticated animals to give you an infection. Once their teeth have punctured the skin, it often closes back up rapidly, which allows an infection to develop unseen. About 5-10% of all cat bites in the United States require hospitalization, and only 1% of all dog bites.
The infection that is more frequently worried about is rabies. This infection is spread through the saliva of infected animals. It infects the central nervous system, ultimately leading to brain damage and death. However, because almost all household animals are vaccinated against this disease, it is usually only spread through wild animals. Animals such as bats, foxes, and raccoons spread more than 90% of all rabies infections in the United States. Only a handful of people each year die due to rabies, and this is generally due to a bat bite. Rabies is more common in other countries, but only about 55,000 people are infected with rabies each year.
Signs of an infection include:
- swelling and redness
- warmth in the injured area
- pain lasting beyond 24 hours
- pus drainage
- red streaks extending up through the arm
- loss of mobility and/or sensation
- night sweats
- loss of energy
If you have one or more of these symptoms, you should go to a physician or the emergency room immediately.
What other damage can be caused by an animal bite?
Even if an animal bite does not cause an infection, it can still be damaging. These bites can cause crushing damage to the hand and fingers, can injure or sever tendons, cause nerve damage, and lead to severed fingers, deep puncture wounds, scarring, severe bruising, and extensive blood loss.
Some signs of damage to the tendons or nerves include an inability to straighten or bend the finger, or a loss of feeling over the tip of the finger.
What can I do before going to a physician?
There are several steps to take immediately after an animal bite. An important thing to remember is not to put the bitten area into your mouth. The mouth contains bacteria which may cause an infection.
A superficial wound (one in which only the first layer of skin has been damaged) should be washed with water and soap or an antiseptic, such as hydrogen peroxide. The wound should be rubbed with an antibiotic ointment and covered with a non-stick bandage.
If the wound is bleeding, you should cover it with a clean cloth and apply pressure to it. If it is not actively bleeding, it should not be cleaned until a physician is present to do so. Instead, the wound should be covered with a sterile dressing while medical assistance is sought.
How is an animal bite treated?
The physician will examine the wound and ask questions about the bite. This should include all known information on the circumstances of and leading up to the bite, including information on the animal in question such as its vaccination history and behavior, the time and location of the incident, and the pre-hospital treatment.
If you have not had a tetanus shot in the past five years, you may need to get a booster shot.
You may need an x-ray to see if there has been damage to the bones and joints, and to check for animal teeth that may have broken off. If an infected hand has gone untreated for too long, an x-ray may also reveal an infection in the bone called osteomyelitis.
The physician will also cleanse the hand thoroughly. This may include trimming off damaged skin around the wound, and anything else that could be a source of infection, including blot clots and dead tissue.
You will also be checked for lymphangitis. This is an inflammation of the lymphatic system. This system is a major component of the immune system, and has a network of organs, nodes (also called glands), cells, and ducts. The nodes are primarily found under the jaw, in the armpits, and around the groin. Lymphangitis occurs when viruses and bacteria spread through the lymphatic system after a wound such as an animal bite. This is what causes red streaks spreading up the arm, and may also cause swelling around the armpit or elbow.
The further treatment of an animal bite depends on the injury and the circumstances surrounding it. Some bites may require intravenous (IV) antibiotics, while others can be treated orally. If the physician gives a diagnosis of having an infection of a flexor tendon sheath or joint, you will need immediate hand surgery. Unless the wound is especially deep, it probably will not need stitches.