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How Animal Bites Measure Up

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article originally printed in the August 6-7, 2005 issue
Reprinted on page 31 in the July 14, 2010 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Beauty, Medicine Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

We may think that we are at the top of the food chain, but there sure are a lot of creatures that love to take a chomp on good old human flesh. Mild cases of mosquito related illness begets headlines of doom and gloom, but we often forget about mammals as a major source of traumatic bites to humans. Take a moment to ponder which mammal produces the most infection prone bite? The answer is other humans! In one large study, it was estimated that close to half of toddlers attending daycare have been bitten by other toddlers. Thank goodness that most of the injury is very minor but problems can arise. Human bites are considered to be one of the nastiest as far as mammals go. Although toxins and rabies are usually not factors, these bites can quickly brew infection, and diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis become concerns. Most human bites occur in and about the hand and are usually ignored until they become painful. This is often the result of a brawl where one person strikes another with the fist, and sustains injury from teeth cutting into the hand. The hand area has little space to accommodate swelling and so the bites tend to be painful. Human bites that puncture the skin often go on to get infected. These types of bites are rarely sutured, and often are treated with thorough cleansing and giving the patient antibiotics. These wounds can be filled with Streptococcal and Staphylococcal bacteria, some of which tend to be antibiotic resistant.

Dog bites are by far the most common mammalian bite. The majority that I have seen come from the "don't worry, he doesn't bite" class, in other words, domesticated dogs. At times, there is a history of provocation. The jaws of dogs are fully capable of crushing and lacerating and tend to result in more extensive injury. In treating these injuries, it is unwise to completely close the wound. This allows for drainage of infected fluids. The rabies status of these creatures is usually known, and we will often update your tetanus status. If tetanus is truly suspected, then a different shot is given. Tetanus immune globulin is essentially a syringe full of short-lived antibodies which can bind tetanus antigens before they exert their paralyzing effects. Antibiotics are avoided unless obvious infection is present. Cat bites are less common but can be small and deep. Both cats and dogs can harbor the Bartonella bacteria, which cause "cat-scratch fever". It is a bothersome condition of reddening around the wound associated with high fevers and regional immune responses producing large tender lymph nodes.

We also share our neighborhood with numerous other species including skunks, foxes, coyotes, squirrels, mice, raccoons, bats, ferrets, possums, rats, and ground hogs, to name a few. Most are non-aggressive and will only bite to defend themselves. In these cases, the question of rabies must always be considered. Ideally, the animal can be located and tested, but this is rarely the case. Most times, we are left making a difficult judgment call from the behavior description, circumstances, and other clues. Rabies shots are started if there is any doubt. They are no longer a series of long painful shots delivered into the stomach. The modern vaccine is administered in a multiple series injected into the arm muscle. Should you have any bite encounters with another mammal in which the skin integrity gets breached, it would be most wise to seek medical attention as soon as possible.


Related resources:

Animal Bites from MedlinePlus.

Animal Bites from eMedicineHealth.com.

Dog bite or dog attack from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Dog Bite Treatment from MedicineNet.com.

Dog Bite Prevention from Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS). "Dog bites can be prevented ... Follow these 'Did You Know?' tips and you too can help prevent dog bites."

Injuries Associated with Dog Bites and Dog Attacks. Summary Report from Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program (CHIRPP) on 1,237 records, all ages. "Injuries associated with dog bites and dog attacks were sustained most frequently by 5-9 year olds (28.5%). Of all injuries related to dog bites and dog attacks, 57.9% were to males."

How to Treat a Cat Bite from eHow.com.

Cat Bite: Being Bitten by a Cat Can Be Serious from Best Cat Art.com.

Video: Animal Bites from HealthyKidTips.com, 2:35 min. Michael Davis, MD, pediatrician, discusses animal bites in children, especially dog and cat bites.

Video: Animal Bites from Rediff Videos, 0:58 min.

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