Animal Bites to the Hand

Overview

During contact with animals, the fingers and hands are highly susceptible to bites. Although bites from wild animals do occur, bites from dogs and cats are much more common and very dangerous. Even though the risk of rabies from a dog or cat bite is rare, the risk of developing another infection is still present - even if the animal has been vaccinated - because of the presence of bacteria in the animal's saliva. The bacteria enter the body through the bite and can cause an infection in the skin, tendon sheaths, joints, bones, or bloodstream.

Dog Bites

Dog bites account for the majority of domestic animal bites each year. Dog bite injuries typically result in lacerations or crushing of the skin and deeper tissues. Bites by larger breeds can also cause tissue loss and broken bones. Although dog bites typically cause more tissue damage than cat bites, the risk of infection is relatively low, especially if treated quickly with proper wound care. If there is significant skin, soft tissue, and muscle injury, the risk of infection is much higher and the bite victim should seek prompt medical attention.

Cat Bites

Cats account for a small percentage of domestic animal bites each year, but cause the majority of bite-related infections. Bites from a cat may seem superficial, but their long teeth can push bacteria deep inside the skin. Sometimes a tooth may break, leaving a small piece of tooth in the wound. The bacteria in a cat's mouth is very aggressive and can result in a severe infection within hours of a bite.

Symptoms of Infection

Most infections usually begin within a few hours of the bite. Symptoms of infection can include swelling, redness at the bite or extending to the hand or arm, or pain when moving the fingers or wrist. A bite over the palm side of the finger or over one of the joints of the finger or wrist can quickly cause a severe infection that can result in permanent dysfunction to the hand, and, in some cases, loss of the finger.

Treatment

Prompt treatment is critical to prevent a severe infection. Bites to the hand should be cleaned immediately with soap and water, and an antiseptic solution and bandage applied. The physician may prescribe antibiotics or administer a tetanus booster. Any bites to the fingers should be immediately evaluated by a physician in the emergency department. If the bite was from a wild animal or from a dog or cat that may not have been vaccinated, rabies treatment may be required.

Hospital Care

Hospitalization and treatment with intravenous antibiotics may be needed if an infection develops. If the antibiotics do not clear the infection, surgery will be needed. Additionally, a bite that results in numbness in the finger or hand may have lacerated a nerve, requiring surgical repair.

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