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Animal Bites

People with their pets: person playing fetch with dog; child approaching an adult and dog; older adult feeding cat​​P​​ets can enrich our homes and help us to live happier and healthier lives. Owning and caring for a pet can help increase fitness and lower stress. But it's important to know that any animal (including a pet) can bite if it feels threatened or scared. Animals usually bite as a way to protect themselves or show that they want to be left alone. ​​

Animal Bite Infections

Our skin provides a barrier against bacteria and other microbes. But if the skin is broken by an animal bite, bacteria that normally live in an animal’s mouth (for example, Pasteurella) or on the surface of our skin (Staphylococcus, Streptococcus) can enter the body and cause infection in the skin and surrounding tissues. These infections can lead to serious illness if the bacteria spread throughout the body. Children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are especially at risk of developing severe infections if bitten by an animal.

Animal bites can hurt, be scary, and spread germs that can make people sick.

Close-up of dog biting a chew toy.Because of their large size, dog bites can cause serious damage to skin, muscle, and underlying body parts. While cat bites may not seem as serious as dog bites, cat bites are more likely to cause a skin infection because the puncture wounds from cat teeth are smaller, deeper, and harder to clean. Bacteria called Bartonella can cause cat scratch disease and are transmitted to people when an infected cat licks a person's open wound or bites or scratches a person hard enough to break the skin.

Many rats and other small rodents kept as pets (gerbils and guinea pigs, for example) can carry bacteria called Streptobacillus. These bacteria can be transmitted to people through bites and lead to rat bite fever.

​​Rabies is caused by a virus in saliva (slobber) and is the most serious disease that can come from an animal bite. Rabies is rare in pets such as dogs and cats in California. Bats and skunks are the animals in California most likely to have rabies. For more information about rabies, please visit the CDPH Rabies webpage.

Recent Findings – Dog & Cat Bite Injuries


​​​​A 15-year California Department of Public Health study of emergency departments in California found that children less than 10 years of age visited the emergency department for injuries from dog bites more often than other age groups. Children were also more than three times more likely to be bitten on the head or face. Older adults were more likely than other age groups to visit the emergency department for cat bite injuries. Infections were observed more frequently in cat bites than dog bites.​​

Animal Bite Care

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, it is important to thoroughly clean the wound. Wash the bite area with soap and keep the area under running water for 5 minutes to help flush out bacteria. While many animal bites aren't serious, some bites can cause injuries and infections that need medical care. If you develop pain, redness, swelling, or discharge (fluid or pus) from the bite wound site, seek medical care. ​​

Person washing a wound on their hand under running water.

Immediately wash an animal bite wound to help prevent infection.

Bite Prev​ention

Person petting a dog on a leashThe best way to prevent infections caused by animal bites is to prevent animal bites in the first place. 

Learning how to safely interact with animals is an important way to prevent animal bites. Animals use body language to show their mood, and people should avoid interacting with an animal that is displaying unwelcoming body language. Parents and caregivers should supervise children, especially those five years old and younger, at all times when around animals, including their own pets.

D​​og Bites

Most animal bites reported in the United States are from dogs. About five million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs each year. Children, especially those under 10 years of age, are 2-3 times more likely than adults to be bitten by dogs. A dog may bite to keep people or other animals away if it feels scared, threatened, hurt, or wants to protect its puppies, food, or toys. Adults should teach children the simple ways to safely interact with dogs.​

Tips for I​​nt​eracti​n​​g with Dogs

  • Wait f​​or a dog to come to you before you try to pet it. ​

  • Stay away from dogs you don't know.

    • If a dog you don't know approaches you, do not panic or run. Stop, stand still (like a tree), and slowly back away from the dog. Stay quiet and calm, and do not make direct eye contact with the dog.

  • Always ask for permission before petting someone's dog.
  • Never tease dogs by taking their toys, food, or treats.

Signs such as growling, cowering, lip licking, or a tense or stiff posture will let you know that a dog is upset and may bite. ​​

Tips for Dog O​wners

  • Introduce your dog to people of all ages and other animals when it's a puppy so it feels comfortable in different situations as it gets older.

  • Obedience training will allow you to maintain better control over your dog. (And your dog will be happier knowing how to behave around you!)

  • When at home, make sure your dog stays on your property.

  • Keep your dog on a leash (six feet or less) whenever outside a fenced area.​

Person reaching to pet a dog laying down that is growling looking like it will bite.

Any dog can bite, even a dog you know well.

Cat B​ites

Like dogs, cats may bite people if they feel scared, threatened, hurt, or protective. Cats may also bite if they are overstimulated during play or want attention. ​Adults should teach children how to safely interact with cats.

Tips for Interacting with Cat​s

  • Get down to a cat's level and wait for the cat to come to you before you try to pet it. 

  • Pet cats gently and avoid loud voices or other noises.

  • Do not try to pet or pick up a cat that walks away from you.

Signs such as flicking of the tail, pinned-back ears, and hissing will let you know that a cat is upset and may bite or scratch.
Young child petting black cat with adult sitting nearby.

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