Lots of people have heard of cat scratch fever (an infection caused by Bartonella henselae, which is often transmitted by cat scratches and bites), but dog bite septicemia is a much less familiar condition, although it is equally if not more serious when it occurs. As the name suggests, the infection (caused by the bacterium Capnocytophaga canimorsus) is typically transmitted by dog bites, and causes an infection of the bloodstream, resulting in very serious body-wide illness. The bacteria can also cause other types of infection including meningitis, endocarditis (infection of the heart valves) and rarely ocular infections.
One study reported that 16% of dogs carried C. canimorsus as part of the normal bacteria in their mouths. Compared to the number of dog bites that occur, C. canimorsus infection is relatively uncommon. Most of the people affected by this bacteria have some kind of predisposing factor, particularly having had their spleen removed (splenectomy), having a weakened immune system, or being an alcoholic. The majority of cases occur in people who have regular close contact with dogs or who were bitten by a dog. Septicemia with C. canimorsus is fatal in approximately 1/3 of cases.
Prompt attention and treatment of dog bites is the best defence against bite-associated infections, including C. canimorsus. The bacteria are typically susceptible to many different antibiotics, but if treatment is delayed too long, the damage to the body may be too severe for the patient to survive.
ALL bite wounds should be taken seriously, and immediately washed thoroughly with lots of soap and water. Consult a physician for any bite on the hand, over a joint or tendon sheath (such as on the wrist or ankle), over any kind of implant or prosthesis, or in the groin area. It is also very important to consult a physician regarding treatment of any bite to a person with a compromised immune system, who has had their spleen removed, or who has any serious underlying chronic disease. Animal bites should also be reported to the local public health department.
More information on bites, much of which is also applicable to dog bites, is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page on the cat bites information sheet.
Picture: Trained attack dog Samo leaps forward toward a decoy’s arm wrap as Tech. Sgt. David Adcox restrains him. (USAF Photo archives)