When to See a Doctor for a Dog Bite

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

Each year about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs. Some bites barely break the skin; others are deadly serious. Dog bites also can cause medical problems that aren’t immediately obvious, such as rabies.

Appropriate medical care can help you minimize the chances of long-term health problems due to a dog bite.

German shepherd dog playfully biting man's hand
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Types of dog bites

Dog bites are classified by severity.

  • Level 1: The dog’s teeth don’t touch the skin.
  • Level 2: The dog’s teeth touch, but do not break, the skin.
  • Level 3: There are one to four shallow puncture wounds in the skin.
  • Level 4: One to four punctures from a single bite. At least one puncture wound is deep.
  • Level 5: Multiple bites, including some deep puncture wounds. May result from a dog attack.

Dog bite treatment at home

First, quickly assess the wound. If there is no blood, wash the bite with soap and water as soon as possible. If the wound is bleeding, apply pressure with a clean cloth for approximately 5 minutes or until the bleeding stops. Then, wash the affected area with soap and water. Flushing the wound liberally with clean water can decrease the odds of a dog bite infection.

If possible, keep the affected area above the level of the heart to prevent swelling and infection. If the wound is open, loosely cover it with a clean bandage.

If possible, ask the dog’s owner for a copy of the animal’s vaccination records. This information will help your physician decide what kind of follow-up treatment is necessary. If the dog is a stray, call animal control. They will attempt to find the dog and check for rabies.

If the dog bite is minor—a Level 1, 2 or 3 bite—you can probably safely manage the bite at home. Wash the wound daily, and check it for signs of infection, including redness, swelling, warmth, a foul odor, or whitish-yellow discharge. 

When to see a doctor for a dog bite

Call 911 and seek emergency medical care if the victim is bleeding profusely from multiple wounds.

Call a doctor if:

  • Bleeding doesn’t stop after 15 minutes of pressure.
  • The bite has broken the skin. A tetanus shot may be necessary to reduce the possibility of tetanus infection, depending on when the victim last received a tetanus booster.
  • The victim was bit by a wild or stray dog, or you are unable to obtain the animal’s immunization records from the owner.
  • The victim has a weakened immune system, either due to an illness (such as diabetes) or medical treatment (such as chemotherapy).
  • You notice any signs of infection, including redness, swelling, warmth, or pus.

Depending on the severity of the bite and the victim’s overall health, the doctor may recommend antibiotic treatment to prevent or treat infection. If the dog has or is suspected to have rabies, the victim will need a series of rabies vaccinations to prevent the development of the disease.

Who to see for a dog bite

Your primary healthcare provider can assess and treat minor to moderate dog bites. If the bite is serious, emergency department personnel are best equipped to manage the trauma of a dog bite. People who experience severe bites may also see a plastic surgeon.

In most cases, dog bite treatment is straightforward and uncomplicated. When in doubt, consult a physician.

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  1. Prevention and Treatment of Dog Bites. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/0415/p1567.html
  2. Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. http://apdt.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ian-dunbar-dog-bite-scale.pdf
  3. Animal Bites. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/animalbites.html
  4. Cat and Dog Bites. American Academy of Family Physicians https://familydoctor.org/cat-and-dog-bites/?adfree=true
  5. Frequently Asked Questions on Rabies. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/rabies/resources/SEA_CD_278_FAQs_Rabies.pdf
  6. Treatment for Animal Bites. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/english/health-issues/conditions/from-insects-animals/pages/treatment-for-animal-bites.aspx
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 12
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