First Aid Tips for Dog Bites

Last updated Thursday, December 8th, 2022

Dogs are often touted as man’s best friend, and in most cases they are. However, if a dog is scared or upset, it is possible that they may bite someone. In that case, there are a number of steps that can be taken at home to treat it. If a bite is severe, it is always recommended to go to a doctor.

Contrary to some beliefs, certain breeds of dog are not more likely to bite. A dog’s likelihood of snapping at or injuring someone is based on its individual history and behavior. A dog that has experienced past abuse or trauma is more likely to bite, as well as dogs that have been poorly socialized. Many dog bites are preventable by taking care to not scare or stress a dog.

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What is a Dog Bite?

A dog bite is when a dog bites a person or animal, especially when it leaves a wound. More than one bite in quick succession is usually called a dog attack.

Not all dog bites are dangerous or need to be stopped – puppies often nip at each other and dogs may do a “soft bite” when playing. These are not intended to hurt anyone and are often a way to explore the world around them. This behavior may need to be stopped by training a dog if it gets to frequent or aggressive. If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a professional dog trainer.

What are the Different Dog Bites?

Dunbar's dog bite.

Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale is a six-level scale that is often used to rate the severity of a bite. This scale shows the different levels below. The majority of bites are Level 1 and 2, with severity worse than that being relatively rare.

Level 1

There is no skin contact by teeth. This can be the result of overly enthusiastic behavior or it can be prompted by aggression. Generally, a Level 1 bite is actually an aggressive display involving biting at the air or biting at clothing. This is usually a reaction to fear.

Level 2

Skin contact is made by teeth, but there are no punctures. However, there may be lacerations. This commonly happens to those who work with dogs often, like vets or pet groomers. Dogs in these situations are often scared and stressed, and snapping at or biting the person frightening them is one of the only ways they have to show it.

Level 3

There are between one and four shallow punctures from a single bite, as well as potential lacerations resulting from pulling the dog or victim away. This can result from a number of situations, such as if something or someone is scaring the dog, if their predatory instinct is triggered, if they have experienced a trauma, or if they have been poorly socialized.

Level 4

There are between one and four deep punctures from a single bite, as well as lacerations or bruising from the dog clamping down on or shaking the victim. This type of bite also usually results from fear, in cases where the dog perceives a serious threat and tries to defend themselves.

Level 5

A multiple bite incident consisting of more than two Level 4 bites.

Level 6

The victim did not survive and/or flesh is consumed by the dog. Fortunately, Level 6 is rare.

Symptoms of a Dog Bite

Dog bites can get infected easily, as bacteria from a dog’s mouth can enter a wound as they bite down. Symptoms of an infection can include swelling and redness around the wound(s), pain that lasts longer than 24 hours, fluid drainage from the wound, difficulty moving the affected part of the body, or a warm feeling around the wound. If the infection has spread to other parts of the body, symptoms may include fever, shaking, or night sweats. If any symptoms are observed, seek medical attention.

First Aid for Dog Bites

Some dog bites can be treated at home. However, others may require medical attention, depending on severity. The injury should be treated as soon as possible to reduce the risk of infection.

Minor Wounds – First Aid

For a Level 1, 2, or even 3 bite, it is usually possible to treat it at home. Wash the affected area with soap and water. If the bite is bleeding, apply pressure using either sterile gauze or a clean cloth. After the bleeding stops, apply antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. Cover the area completely with a bandage or sterile gauze. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used for pain if needed.

Major Wounds – First Aid

For some Level 3 and any Level 4 or higher bites, it is recommended to see a doctor at an emergency room or urgent care. The steps above may still be followed – wash the area and apply pressure. If the bite will not stop bleeding or the wound is serious, seek immediate medical attention.

At Home Wound Care

Always follow the advice of a medical professional when it comes to wound care. However, if the wound was not severe enough to seek treatment, you may not have a doctor’s advice to go on. In that case, these general steps may be followed:

  • Make sure your hands are clean when touching your wound
  • Clean the wound daily and cover with a clean bandage
  • Monitor the area carefully for signs of infection
  • If the wound does not seem to be healing properly, seek medical attention.

When to See a Doctor for a Dog Bite

If you are worried about possible complications or can’t tell if the wound is serious, it is always better to be safe than sorry and you should seek medical attention. However, there are some reasons you would definitely need to go to a doctor as soon as possible.

These may include if a bite doesn’t stop bleeding; causes intense pain; causes a loss of function like an inability to move fingers or toes; exposes bone, muscle, or tendon; or shows the signs of infection listed above. A large wound may also need to be closed with stitches, even if it is not causing a loss of function or exposing any muscle or bone.

Also be sure to seek medical attention if the dog that bit you is not up to date on its vaccinations or if it is acting erratically. Dogs that are sick, especially with rabies, may be more prone to bite.

Rabies is a viral infection that can be carried by animals and spread when the animal bites another animal or a human. It is treatable, but only if caught early – otherwise it is fatal. Getting rabies from a dog is relatively rare, but it is still important to be aware of the possibility.

If you are not up to date on the tetanus vaccine or cannot remember when you were last vaccinated, make sure to go in and get a tetanus shot. Tetanus is a bacterial infection that causes painful muscle contractions. The bacteria that cause it can enter the bloodstream through a wound like an animal bite. Severe tetanus can be fatal, but it is preventable if you keep up to date with your vaccinations.


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