In most instances, dogs make wonderful and loving companions to their human counterparts. But the unfortunate reality is that even the most seemingly gentle canine can snap if they feel you pose a threat. Roughly 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, and one out of every five of those bites requires medical attention.

If a dog bites you, there are steps you need to take immediately to treat the wound and reduce your risk of infection. Here’s what you should do if a dog bite injures you or a loved one:

Apply first aid

After a dog bite, you must tend to your injury right away to minimize your risk of bacterial infection. To treat a dog bite injury, you should:

  • Place a clean towel or cloth over the wound to stop any bleeding
  • Keep the area elevated when possible
  • Wash the wound with soap and water
  • Apply a sterile bandage
  • Apply antibiotic ointment to prevent infection

Ask about the dog’s vaccination history

If the dog’s owner is nearby, it’s essential to gather information about the dog’s vaccination records and whether they are up to date. Be sure to ask for the owner’s name and contact information as well as the dog’s veterinary information in case you need to follow up in the future.

Seek medical attention

While you may be able to treat a relatively minor dog bite injury at home, you should still consider seeing a doctor, especially if an unfamiliar dog bit you, the wound is deep or you observe signs of infection. During a medical evaluation, your doctor will likely ask you:

  • If you knew the dog’s owner and whether to dog is up to date on its vaccinations, including rabies.
  • Was the dog provoked or unprovoked when the attack occurred?
  • What existing health conditions do you have? If you have diabetes, liver disease or other immune system illnesses, you may be at higher risk of infection.

Depending on the injury, you may need to take antibiotics for a few weeks to prevent or treat bacterial infections. While it’s rare for dogs in the U.S. to have rabies, you will likely have to get a rabies vaccine if the dog was unknown or the dog tests positive for rabies.

The bottom line

Dog bite injuries can be severe, but infections are preventable. If you suffer injuries from a dog attack, be sure to have your doctor evaluate your condition as soon as possible to avoid worsening the injury.