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What should I do if my baby gets bitten by an animal?
That depends on how bad the wound is. If it's clearly minor – nothing more than a superficial scratch – carefully wash the area with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment twice a day.
Cover your baby's wound with an adhesive bandage if it's on a part of his body that's likely to get dirty. Otherwise, leave it exposed to the air.
If the skin is broken and bleeding, the injury may be serious. Apply a gauze pad or clean cloth to the wound and press with your fingers.
If pressure doesn't stop the bleeding in a couple of minutes, call 911 for emergency medical care. (Animal bites to your baby's face or neck are especially dangerous because they may open up major blood vessels.)
Even if the bleeding stops, call the doctor right away to determine whether your baby needs stitches or other medical treatment. Animal bites are more likely to become infected than other types of cuts, so the doctor may prescribe a round of antibiotics.
Should I worry about rabies?
Most dogs and cats in the United States are vaccinated for rabies, so they don't carry the virus that causes the disease. If you know who the owners of the animal are, ask them to provide documentation that the animal has been vaccinated. (You can call their veterinarian for verification, if necessary.)
If you don't know who the owners are – or the animal is acting strangely or foaming at the mouth – try to keep the animal in your sight, but don't go near it. Call your nearest Animal Control authorities to come and capture it. (You can find the number in your telephone directory.) Animal Control authorities can check the animal for signs of rabies.
If you don't know the animal and are unable to follow it, Animal Control can attempt to find the animal and its owner to check on its rabies status. If you can't verify that the animal's rabies vaccinations are up to date, your baby will probably need a series of shots to prevent rabies, just in case the animal does have the disease.
In addition to unvaccinated dogs and cats, wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and bats can carry rabies. If a wild animal has bitten your baby, call your doctor immediately. If rabies is a possibility, your child will need a series of anti-rabies shots.
Something else you should know about bats: Your baby can get a rabies infection from a bat scratch or very small bite (small enough that you may not even be able to detect it).
For this reason, it's important to take your baby to the doctor if he touches a bat or if you discover that there was a bat in his environment (in a camping cabin or near his playpen outdoors, for example). Call Animal Control to pick up a bat that may have exposed your baby to rabies if it's still in the area or has been killed.
Small household pets like gerbils, hampsters, guinea pigs, and white mice don't carry rabies, though bites from these animals can become infected. Small wild animals – like gophers, mice, rats, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels — are considered low risk for rabies.
What about other infections?
While you may worry most about rabies if your baby is bitten by an animal, a bacterial infection is a much more common problem. That's why it's so important to wash the area thoroughly and apply an antibiotic ointment.
If the wound is serious or it's in a spot where there's a higher risk for infections — like your baby's face, hands, feet, or genital area (even if it's minor) — the doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
For any wound, even a minor one, your baby may need a tetanus shot if he's not up to date on his immunizations. And you'll want to keep an eye on the wound over the next few days, even if it's superficial and you treat it at home.
If the wound begins to look infected (red, swollen, or oozing) or your baby starts to run a fever or act sick, call the doctor right away. Also see your baby's doctor promptly if the bite doesn't heal in ten days.
How much of a problem are animal bites?
Far and away the most common bite is a dog bite. Each year, 800,000 Americans get medical care for dog bites, and half of these are children. More boys than girls get bitten, and almost two thirds of the injuries among children under age 4 are to the neck and head area. So it's important that you take precautions to protect your baby from animal bites.
What can I do to prevent animal bites?
When your child is older, you can teach him the basics of avoiding animal bites. At this stage, it's up to you to protect him from animals.
Never leave your baby alone with your pet or anyone else's pet. (Almost half of the children who are bitten by dogs received the bite from the family's dog or a neighbor's dog.) And remember that any dog or cat may bite if provoked – by a baby pulling its tail or acting aggressively, for example.