Parenting: Kids and Animal Bites

David Murphy says pets are great, until they bite!
November 2, 2011

All it took was one loud rap of the hammer and the fur was flying. More significantly, the teeth were gnashing. Scared and desperate to flee, Midnight punctured my daughter's arm with all four fangs to gain her release and while little if any blood was drawn, it was obvious that some damage had been done.

Within hours, my daughter's arm started turning bright pink around the site of the cat bite and then ribbons of red began extending along the arm's length, tracing a path along its veins and past the elbow.

Our local doctor quickly ordered us to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in University City (funny, we thought, since my daughter was just shy of eighteen-years-old and very nearly too old for treatment there). It was good move, because as it turns out, hospitals that treat kids treat lots of animal bites and the staff is knowledgeable and quick to act in these cases.

According to numerous hospital websites, animals bite children regularly in the United States, no surprise given how many of us welcome pets into our homes. C. H. O. P. sees between 150 and 175 of these patients annually, or one every other day or so. Bites from cats and dogs are the most common, but rodents and even bats sometimes make the list.

Physicians say cats take the prize for most commonly causing infection. Doctor Rakesh Mistry, who's worked in the Children's Hospital Emergency Room for seven years, describes the difference this way: "Dogs have longer, rounded teeth. They tend to do more tearing and laceration, whereas cats have very sharp, long, thin teeth that tend to puncture the skin."

Dr. Mistry says the bacteria in the animal's mouth, when inserted deep beneath the skin by those sharp teeth, has a much easier time staying there and causing problems. But dogs don't get a pass. Those larger jaws are more likely to fracture bones than smaller animals. And by the way, the most common urban rabies threat: bats.

With any animal bite, however, bacterial infection is possible and it's important to seek treatment if any of the following signs are detected: red streaking near the bite, a yellow, foul-smelling discharge from the wound, or if your kid starts running a temperature.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has a nice online page that describes what to do when your child is bitten. It's important to act fast with a thorough cleaning and then to be on the look-out for any those tell-tale signs of infection I've listed above, in case medical treatment is needed. Dr. Mistry actually advises that a trip to your local doctor is a good idea no matter what, since he or she is probably in a better position to judge the severity of the wound.

Again, sometimes bites are treatable with nothing more than a wash. If there's a small infection, oral antibiotics can often take care of things nicely. In this case, your child visits the doctor's office, gets a prescription and then immediately starts on the antibiotic regimen. He or she must keep taking these meds religiously, however, in strict accordance with the directions on the label. Missing a dose can undo the whole process.

But if those symptoms I mentioned appear (the red streaking, etc.), the chances are your child will have to be admitted overnight to a hospital where the antibiotic can be introduced more forcefully through an intravenous line. This may seem rash, but it's necessary in some instances and not all that uncommon.

In my daughter's case, we only waited a few hours before seeking medical attention, but it was pretty obvious once we did that it was the right move. We were quickly sent packing to the hospital ER and my daughter was just as quickly admitted and hooked up to the IV. In fact, two days and two nights passed before she was well enough to be discharged. By the way, a possible penalty for not getting a serious bite properly treated is unnecessary scarring and disfigurement.

Of course, the best away to avoid an adventure like this is to avoid getting bit in the first place. With this in mind, I'll direct you to another couple of links.

Children's Hospital has a page with some basic animal bite prevention tips for parents and kids. If you want an even more extensive review, you can also check-out another great site run by the Better Health Channel that includes similar tips but also covers numerous, additional animal encounters, not just with the more common cats and dogs, but with birds and snakes, too!

I can give some personal council on birds, since I've been bitten a few times by my daughter's pet Nanday Conure which, I can assure you, is not pleasant. I'll have more on that in another upcoming blog.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: as troublesome as animal bites are, bites from humans are even more prone to infection. So, um, tell your kids not to bite each other!

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