No matter how affectionate a pet can be, bites and scratches are always a possibility when you’re dealing with animals. A good cleaning and perhaps antibiotic ointment often takes care of the wound, but sometimes, these bites and scratches can result in a bacterial infection. Occasionally, these infections can trigger sepsis. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are approximately 4.5 million dog bites in the United States over a year, and almost 800,000 people need medical care due to a bite. They note that children are most commonly bitten, even with dogs that they are familiar with and have interacted with before without incident. There are about 400,000 cat bites each year as well, but there are no statistics on other types of animal bites or scratches.
Sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
An animal bite that breaks your skin exposes you to multiple bacteria, both from bacteria that may be on your skin and bacteria in the animal’s mouth. If the bite barely breaks the skin, you have a better chance of cleaning the wound well and preventing infection. But deep bites are puncture wounds, and bacteria can go in deep with these types of bites.
Dog bites are the most common ones related to pets, but cat bites cause 10% to 20% of animal bites in the U.S. At first, they may not appear to cause as much damage as dog bites, but their smaller teeth and deep punctures can make it hard to clean out a wound properly.
Many households, especially with children, have pets like guinea pigs and hamsters. These animals can also bite and cause infections.
Signs of an infected bite may include:
- Growing redness around the scratch
- Increasing pain
- Oozing from the wound
If an animal bites you, it’s essential to check with the owner to ensure that the vaccinations are up-to-date. If not, see your doctor and explain which vaccinations the dog did not have. If you don’t know the dog that bit you, this should be reported to animal control in your area.
All scratches, even human ones, can become infected. Signs of an infected scratch are similar to that of a bite.
Cat scratch disease is an illness literally caused by a cat’s scratch. The Bartonella henselae bacteria cause it. Although the infection can happen anytime throughout the year, it is more common in the fall and winter. If a cat scratches you, clean the wound well and watch for signs of infection. These include:
- A small blister or pimple filled with pus (called a pustule) near the scratch
- Enlarged lymph nodes
If you see any signs of infection, see your doctor as soon as possible to see if you need antibiotics.
If you have an animal bite or scratch, be sure to clean the wound thoroughly with warm running water. Keep the wound clean and dry until a scab forms to reduce the risk of infection.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Reviewed January 3, 2023.