Animal Bites - What To Do About Them In Children

Animal Bites - What To Do About Them In Children

Animal bites from dogs and cats are common, especially in tamariki. If your child has had an animal bite, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. They may need treatment.


Key points about animal bites 

  • dog, cat and rat bites occur more commonly in children than adults
  • tamariki are most commonly bitten by their own dog or dogs they know 
  • cat bites are more likely to become infected than dog bites
  • all animal bites can become infected - take your child to a doctor for a check after any animal bite 

Who gets animal bites?

All tamariki are at risk of an animal bite. Dog bites are more common in tamariki under 5 years of age. Cat bites are more common in tamariki than adults. 

What sort of animal bites could my child get?

Dog bites

Up to 90% of animal bites are from dogs. Younger tamariki are most likely to get dog bites on their head and neck. This is most likely because a young child's head is at the level of a large dog's mouth. Dog bites can be scratches, puncture wounds, deep cuts, crush injuries or skin tears. 

Cat bites

Around 5 to 10% of animal bites are from cats. Tamariki usually get cat bites on their hands and arms when playing with a cat. Cat bites can be scratches or deep puncture wounds. 

Rodent bites

Around 3% of animal bites are from rodents like rats. Rat bites are common in tamariki 5 years or younger. Tamariki mostly get rat bites on their hands or faces. Rate bites are more common in the warmer months. 

Check out the KidsHealth page on cuts, scratches and grazes for more information on different types of wounds

What should I do if my child has been bitten by an animal?

Because all animal bites could become infected, take your child to the doctor if they have had an animal bite. 

Before you see the doctor, you can control any bleeding by putting pressure on the wound. Do not put on any ointments or begin treatment with any kind of medicine before seeing the doctor. 

When should my child see a doctor following an animal bite?

In most cases, take your child to a  doctor as soon as possible after any animal bite. 

Take your child to the closest emergency department if:

  • the bleeding is heavy, or you can't stop the bleeding
  • the wound looks wide or deep
  • your child has had any bites on the head, face, ears, hand, foot or genitals
  • the bite is over a joint

When to dial 111

Phone 111 within New Zealand for an ambulance (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) if:

  • the animal bite looks serious 
  • your child is unconscious or having difficulty breathing
  • you are worried that your child looks very ill 

What will the doctor do following an animal bite? 

Depending on where the animal bite is and how bad it is, the doctor may:

  • clean the wound and remove loose skin 
  • take a swab of the wound 
  • use stitches to close the wound
  • prescribe a course of antibiotics for your child 
  • recommend or prescribe some pain relief 
  • recommend tetanus immunisation 
  • send your child for an x-ray to check for any bone damage
  • refer your child to the hospital specialists if they suspect any damage to nerves or tendons
  • give you advice on how to keep the wound clean
  • ask you to bring your child back again for another check of the wound 
  • refer your child for counselling if their mental wellbeing has been affected 

What should I look out for after my child has been bitten?

Once your child has seen the doctor, you will get advice on how to care for their wound.

Keep a close eye on your child’s bite wound and see a doctor again if: 

  • there is increased redness, swelling and pain or it becomes warm to touch
  • red streaks develop
  • there is a coloured or smelly discharge
  • your child has any new loss of feeling, numbness or inability to move the affected limb it’s on
  • the wound has not healed after 2 weeks

Check out the KidsHealth page on skin infections for more advice on how to manage them

Emotional and mental wellbeing after an animal bite

After a bad experience with an animal bite, some tamariki may be scared to be around animals. If you feel like your child is anxious or is having nightmares or flashbacks after their animal bite, ask your doctor for support. Your doctor can arrange psychological support for your child through ACC.

See the ACC website for more information on accessing counselling and therapy sessions for your child.

Find out more about Rongoā Māori medical practitioners that are available through ACC.

Will my child need time off from kura or school after an animal bite?

Your child should take at least one day off after starting treatment (such as antibiotics). Check with your doctor how long they recommend. 

What can I do to prevent my child from getting an animal bite?

It is important to teach your child how to approach and handle pets. Here are some things you can do: 

  • never leave tamariki alone with a cat or dog
  • teach tamariki how to handle animals gently and kindly
  • remind tamariki not to disturb an animal that is sleeping 
  • avoid touching animals that don’t know you or your child 
  • teach your child to ask the animal’s owner if it is OK to pat them first 
  • avoid approaching stray animals or animals that look aggressive 
  • do not disturb cats and dogs that have kittens and puppies with them, as they may become aggressive if they fear their young are at risk

See the Department of Internal Affairs Dog Safety website for more information about dogs and keeping tamariki safe.

This page last reviewed 05 May 2023.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it