Bite Wounds in Dogs: What Can You Do at Home?

A dark dog with sad eyes stares into the camera.A dark dog with sad eyes stares into the camera.
A dark dog with sad eyes stares into the camera.A dark dog with sad eyes stares into the camera.

Bite wounds (caused by the bite of another animal) are very common injuries in dogs; in fact, they are one of the most common reasons dogs go to veterinary emergency rooms.  Most bite wounds occur from other dogs but can also occur from cats and other wild animals. The damage caused by bite wounds can vary from minor skin problems, very significant, deep penetrating wounds to severe internal injuries from the crushing effects of a bite wound.

Some bite wounds appear as punctures while others present as large lacerations. The edges can be smooth, jagged, or irregular depending on the initiating factor.

Depending on the depth and force of the bite, significant damage to underlying soft tissues and structures can result. Not only can the skin be punctured or torn, but underlying muscles, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels can also be damaged. I’ve even seen broken bones occur from bite wounds. The depth of the wound can range from superficial to penetration into the chest or abdominal cavity as a result of the trauma that produced the laceration.

I don’t mean to scare you, but I’ve seen even small exterior wounds cause significant and life-threatening internal damage. For example, I once saw a small breed dog that was attacked by a large dog. There were only a couple of exterior punctures visible initially but the punctures penetrated into the chest cavity and abdomen, causing a pneumothorax and damaging the kidney and intestines. Fortunately, this little dog lived with excellent and intensive medical care.

Again, I don’t want to scare you but I’d rather be overly cautious when it comes to the health and life of your dog. My point is that in this case, the outside damage did not look extensive compared to the internal damage. I don’t want you to overlook a wound and think it is no big deal when indeed it is. For this reason, I recommend that ALL dogs with bite wounds be examined by a veterinarian.

Minor bite trauma may produce only skin damage or superficial abrasions. Deeper or more forceful bites can cause severe damage to the structures underneath and even be life-threatening.  In addition, bite wounds are dirty and usually require a good cleaning and antibiotics. Sometimes the damage underneath can take time to show up, for example, trauma to the fat and muscles under the skin can cause major issues several hours to days after the initial injury and often need multiple visits to the veterinarian and occasionally multiple surgeries or visits for wound care.

Below are some common questions dog owners ask about their dogs with bite wounds. In this article, we’ll focus on what you can do at home to treat the condition.

What Causes a Bite Wound?

A bite wound from an animal attack can occur for many reasons. Animal fights most commonly happen when adults are put together for the first time. Other causes of fighting include dominance, hierarchy, and conflict over things like food, owner attention, or territory. Your dog may be the attacker or the victim and become injured.

Home Treatment for a Dog Bite Wound

Specific treatments for a bite wound depend on the degree and depth of injury, in addition to any associated or secondary injuries. It is very difficult to give helpful advice online or over the phone without knowing the full extent of the injury.  The best thing to do is to take your dog to your veterinarian where the staff can determine the extent of the injury.

If you cannot take your dog to your veterinarian you can do the following:

  • Carefully evaluate your dog’s wound for depth, bleeding, and signs of another injury. He could be in pain so take special caution not to be bitten.
  • If the wound is bleeding, take a clean towel and gently apply pressure. Again, be careful.
  • If the wound is superficial (not serious) you may be able to clip the fur around the wound. Take care not to get hair in the wound. You can place sterile KY jelly in the wound to protect it while clipping the hair. This allows the hair to stick to the KY jelly instead of the wound.
  • Examine the extent of the wound. If it is deep (e.g. it seems to go deeper than the full thickness of the skin), is bleeding profusely, or is longer than about 1 inch, see your veterinarian. The wound should be examined and most likely sutured.
  • If you cannot bring your dog for medical attention, a “worst-case scenario” plan of action includes cleaning the wound with lukewarm water. Really flush it like crazy; it’s not possible to use too much water. If you have a syringe, try drawing up water into the syringe and squirting it into the wound. If you also have a syringe with needle you can try squirting the water into the wound through the needle. The needle and syringe should never touch your dog. The goal is to use the pressure of the water to remove debris from the wound.  A smaller opening like a needle will help increase the pressure and “power-wash” the wound.
  • Water or saline is the best solution to clean a wound and is readily available.  Owners always ask if they should use peroxide or other cleaning solutions. Again, water or saline is best but peroxide can be used on superficial wounds- never in wounds that penetrate deep or pocket under the skin.  Peroxide should not be used more than once as it will delay healing of the wound. It should also never be used on the head or neck, it can cause eye damage if it accidentally gets into your dog’s eye during the cleaning.
  • After you have thoroughly cleaned the wound, apply a 4×4 or similar bandage then wrap the area with gauze. If the wound is open vets often prefer a bandage material called “Telfa.” It is gauze-like material impregnated with a substance that allows it to not stick to the wound (which can hurt when removing it).  You would normally place the Telfa next to the wound, then layer some absorbent cloth on top if the wound is draining a lot, finally using elastic or another material to wrap and keep the bandage on the dog.
  • If you place the bandage on a leg, make sure it is not too tight. Check your dog’s toes every few hours for swelling and remove or loosen the bandage if you notice any.
  • Observe your dog. If he is experiencing minor health problems such as superficial skin damage, he should be otherwise acting normal (eating and drinking okay, no vomiting or diarrhea, normal urine and bowel movements). If your dog is having difficulty breathing, acting lethargic, experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, or won’t eat, please see your veterinarian.
  • Keep your dog from bothering the wound or bandage. One way to do this is to cover it. If your dog is bothering the bandage you can prevent him from getting to it by using an Elizabethan or e-collar (a cone-shaped object that goes around the neck of a dog to prevent them from licking or chewing). For more information go to Elizabethan Collars in Dogs.  You can also cover some wounds with a t-shirt. Small dogs can often be dressed in toddler t-shirts. Simply place your dog’s head through the head hole and his front legs through the armholes of the shirt. This can work well to cover wounds on the sides of the body which a bandage cannot easily cover.
  • If you see drainage or fluid coming through the bandage, change it and examine the wound. If no drainage is seen the bandage should be examined and changed in 8 hours. If the wound looks clean, dry, and closed after that time you may be able to leave the bandage off. Make sure your dog can’t lick at the wound after removing the bandage.
  • Change the bandage as needed. This may be as frequent as once to 3 times daily until it looks like the wound is healing.
  • Signs of wound infection include swelling, pain, redness, and discharge. Watch for changes, especially bloody or yellow discharge.
  • Take your dog’s temperature twice a day if possible. Normal temperatures in a dog range between approximately 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  If your dog’s temperature is over 103 degrees Fahrenheit, contact your veterinarian. Not sure what to do with the thermometer? Read our article to learn how to take your dog’s temperature.
  • This is important: if your dog acts like they are in pain, you notice swelling or a foul-smelling discharge with or without redness, or your dog won’t eat or acts lethargic, SEE YOUR VETERINARIAN. Bite sounds are “dirty wounds” and dogs with these injuries require antibiotics. Your dog needs your help and the professional care your veterinarian can provide. If your dog is having any of the clinical signs mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to perform diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. These will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs.

When is a Bite Wound an Emergency?

A laceration is always an emergency and should always be examined by a veterinarian. Even small cuts can be deep and penetrate important structures, requiring sutures or additional treatment.

Great Links for More Information

For more details and related topics, go to Bite Wounds in Dogs.

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