Earlier this summer, three children — Irie Campbell, 11, her brother Felix, 5, and friend Piper Rolfe, 10 — were attacked by a raccoon in Kirby, Vermont (See the WCAX-TV story “Children Fight Off Raccoon Attack”). Fortunately, everyone is safe and healthy. The story is a powerful reminder that we must all be aware of how to protect ourselves when animals attack – both in the wild, and even at home.
First things first, let’s start with prevention: Wild animals usually try to avoid us; however, they may attack if they are threatened, sick, or protecting their young, or territory. Stray animals and wild animals bite thousands of people each year.
To prevent animal bites and complications from bites:
- Never pet, handle, or feed unknown animals.
- Vaccinate your cats, ferrets, and dogs against rabies (it is the law).
- Spay or neuter your dogs to make them less aggressive.
- Get a tetanus booster if you have not had one recently.
- Wear boots and long pants when you are in areas with venomous snakes.
Attacks by pets are more common than wild animals. Dog bites are the most common. Cat bites are less common, but have a higher risk of infection.
If an animal bites you, follow these steps.
1. Seek Medical Help Immediately
Call 911 if you or a person has been seriously wounded — for example, if the person is bleeding significantly and it will not stop with simple first aid measures.
Call your doctor or go to an emergency room if:
- The person was bitten by an unknown, or wild animal.
- The person has not had a tetanus shot within the past 5 years.
- There is swelling, redness, pus draining from the wound, or pain.
- The bite is on the face, neck, or hands.
- The bite is deep or large.
- You aren’t sure if the wound needs stitches.
2. Practice Basic First Aid
Wear latex gloves or wash your hands thoroughly before attending to the wound. Wash hands afterwards, too. If the bite is not bleeding severely, wash the wound thoroughly with mild soap and running water for 3 to 5 minutes. Then, cover the bite with antibiotic ointment and a clean dressing.
If the bite is actively bleeding, apply direct pressure with a clean, dry cloth until the bleeding stops. Raise the area of the bite. If the bite is on the hand or fingers, call the doctor right away. Over the next 24 to 48 hours, watch the area of the bite for signs of infection (increasing skin redness, swelling, and pain). If the bite becomes infected, call the doctor or take the person to an emergency medical center.
An animal bite is also more likely to become infected in those who have: a weakened immune system due to medicines or disease, Diabetes, and peripheral artery disease.
3. Report to Local Authorities
Report the bite to the local animal control authorities, even if you don’t seek medical care. This will allow authorities to test the animal and prevent further incidents. Notify your local animal control and call the Vermont Health Department at 1-800-640-4374.
4. Protect Against Rabies
Some animals are infected with a virus that can cause rabies. Rabies is rare, but can be deadly. If you get a rabies shot very soon after you are bitten, you can develop immunity to the disease and not get sick. Call the Vermont Health Department, or your doctor to help guide you through whether you need rabies vaccines.
Antibiotics are used to treat many animal bites, especially if it involved your hands or fingers, or if a cat or monkey bit you.
Do NOT go near an animal that may have rabies, or an animal that is acting strangely or aggressively. If an animal’s behavior is strange, it may be rabid. Notify the proper authorities. The police can always direct you to the proper animal control authorities. Tell them what the animal looks like and where it is so they can capture it.
Sahmon Fallahian, MD, is a family medicine physician with the Family Medicine Colchester.