Dog bites vary greatly in their severity; some may not cause significant pain or even break the skin, while others may necessitate stitches or plastic surgery. In addition to the potential physical damage caused by a dog bite, the saliva of the offending canine may contain a plethora of pathogens, capable of causing serious infections or disease. While rabies is the most troubling possibility, tetanus and other dangerous bacteria also may infect the bite, thereby creating a serious health problem. Always see your doctor if you suffer a dog bite that penetrates the skin.
Rabies is a viral disease that primarily affects carnivorous animals, such as dogs, foxes, cats and raccoons. However, if you come into contact with the saliva of an infected animal, you can contract the disease as well. The only treatment available for the disease is a vaccine, but it has been effective in greatly reducing the prevalence of the disease in the developed world. If a dog whose vaccination status cannot be determined -- or actually has rabies -- bites you, your doctor likely will administer the rabies vaccine. While human deaths are rare with prompt medical treatment, rabies is almost 100 percent fatal without proper medical care.
Tetanus or Lockjaw
Tetanus is a dangerous disease caused by the ubiquitous bacteria Clostridium tetani. The bacteria can enter the body via breaks in the skin -- particularly deep puncture wounds, such as those caused by the canine teeth of dogs. If the bacteria take hold and begin producing toxins, your muscles can start to contract painfully. Because the muscles of the head, neck and jaw are often particularly affected, the disease is sometimes called “lockjaw.” If these contractions compromise your ability to breathe, the disease can be fatal. No cure for tetanus exists, but a vaccine can help your body to fight off the invaders and rid your body of the toxins.
Aside from tetanus, a number of bacteria can live in a dog’s mouth. While most such bacteria respond well to antibiotics, some infections can be serious, leading to the need for aggressive antibiotic regimens and amputation of affected limbs. A 2011 review of the bacteria cultured from dog bite wounds, published in “Clinical Microbiology Reviews,” found that bacteria from the genera Pasteurella, Streptococcus and Staphylococcus were present in nearly half of the bite wounds examined. Additionally, bacteria from the genera Fusobacterium and Neisseria were frequently present as well.
Wash any dog bite thoroughly with soap and warm water to remove as many pathogens as possible. Stop the bleeding by applying a clean bandage to the wound and applying pressure. See your doctor or visit the emergency room immediately if the bite is serious; if required, notify the local health department of the bite. If possible and prudent, obtain the contact information for the dog’s owner, which will help you determine the dog’s vaccination status.
After examining the wound and determining if the dog presents a rabies risk, your doctor likely will treat the wound, take samples for culturing and provide you with a tetanus booster, if appropriate. Your doctor may prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics to help battle any impending infection or he may wait until the cultures return from the lab to prescribe specific antibiotics.