Ah, summertime: the season for picnics, parties, pools, and…pet bites.
At the risk of being a downer just as you're probably longing for those carefree sunny days, it's true. During the dog days of summer, the incidence of everyday bites and scratches from domestic animals—especially dogs and cats—increases nationwide.
In the summertime, people are simply out and about more, walking in parks and neighborhoods or visiting other people's homes where they’re more likely to encounter domestic animals, says David Townes, M.D., M.P.H, D.T.M.H., professor of emergency medicine at UW School of Medicine.
On top of that, pets tend to be more stressed in the summertime due to heat, dehydration, noise and lots of people around.
So, while you certainly don't need to be looking over your shoulder for Cujo just because you're taking a stroll down the street, it's a good idea to know what to do if a furry friend becomes a furry foe.
Which pets to look out for and why
Dogs cause the most number of bites and cats cause the most number of scratches of any domestic pet, primarily because there are more dogs and cats out there than other pets. Dogs tend to bite rather than scratch, and cats tend to scratch but can also bite, says Townes.
When dogs bite, they create a crushing injury due to the strength of their jaws and flat shape of their teeth, which are designed to rip. Cats have long, pincer-like teeth that can create a piercing injury, he says.
As for why pets sometimes lash out, it's good to remember that domestic animals—as cute as they are—are still animals.
Even normally sweet and gentle pets can bite or scratch if afraid, irritable, overstimulated or in protective mode. In the wild, biting and scratching are the only ways dogs and cats have to protect themselves, so these behaviors can be reflexive in pets if they're stressed, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
An ounce of prevention: How to avoid a bite or scratch
How can you avoid getting bitten or scratched in the first place? Townes offers a few rules of thumb:
- Be careful around animals you don't know.
- Know how to read warning signs, like a dog's aggressive stance or a cat thumping and twitching his tail while being petted.
- When approaching a dog who hasn't met you before, move slowly and present your hand so that the dog can sniff it first.
- Don't approach a dog that looks injured or scared.
If a dog approaches you aggressively, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends standing still like a tree, not facing the dog directly, and not running. The dog is more likely to conclude that you're not a threat or an object of prey and lose interest.
Should you seek emergency care?
If despite your best efforts you find yourself on the wrong end of a tooth or claw, what should you do? Is it best to simply wash the wound out at home or get it checked by a professional right away?
The answer to that generally lies in how deep a bite or scratch is, says Townes. If it's broken through more than the most superficial layer of skin, the potential for infection is greater.
Not to throw too much shade on our feline friends, but cat bites get infected at a much higher rate than cat scratches or dog bites because of the mechanics of their mouth. "Because their teeth are long and sharp, cats can inject their saliva deeper into your skin and soft tissues," says Townes.
"It's always a good idea to wash a wound out with clean running water and soap at home, even holding it under the faucet for 15 minutes or longer. But at the emergency department, providers can use high-pressure irrigation for better cleaning, assess the wound for infection risk and prescribe prophylactic antibiotics," he says.
Another reason to head to the emergency department is if there's any potential damage to deeper structures such as bones, tendons or ligaments. Of course, if a bite is bad enough to cause disfigurement or heavy bleeding, you should always seek emergency care right away.
The bad mews: Infections to know about
Meet Bartonella henselae and Pasteurella multocida. These are the types of bacteria most likely to cause an infection after a cat bite or deep scratch.
About 40 to 50 percent of cats carry Bartonella henselae, which can result in cat scratch disease. If you're bitten or scratched by a cat and develop symptoms like fever, exhaustion, and swollen lymph nodes close to the injury three to 10 days later, you've likely developed cat scratch disease, says Townes.
Pastuerella multocida causes localized swelling and redness within 24 hours, which can spread to surrounding tissues and even to other parts of the body, especially in people with compromised immune systems. Strep and staph infections can occur after a cat bite, but are more common in dog bites, and they tend to occur later.
The good news is that all of these infections are very treatable when caught early.
What about the R word?
If you do get bitten, rabies might be on your mind, especially with rabid bats in the news lately.
Luckily, Townes says that it's unlikely to contract rabies from a cat or dog bite in the U.S. "Rabies is identified more often in cats than dogs in the U.S., but the overall risk remains low," he says.
Still, it's better to be safe than sorry. "If you're bitten by a dog or cat, you should be seen in the ER where we can determine whether you need the rabies vaccine," he advises.
Back to your regular programming
Now that you know what to look out for, you'll be more likely to avoid an unwanted encounter with an out-of-line dog or cat—and better able to care for an injury if one does occur.