Tetanus is a potentially life-threatening infection that dogs can contract through open wounds. This soil-borne bacterial disease causes muscle stiffness and ultimately death if left untreated, so it is important for pet parents to be aware of the causes, treatments, and prevention of tetanus in dogs.
What Is Tetanus?
Tetanus is an uncommon but serious infection in dogs caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria in the soil. When these bacteria enter a dog's body through an open wound, they release toxins that affect the nervous system, causing muscle spasms and rigidity. Tetanus is sometimes called "lockjaw" because of how it characteristically inhibits the normal function of the jaw muscles. This disease can be fatal if left untreated because it essentially paralyzes the throat and diaphragm, restricting a dog's ability to breathe.
Symptoms of Tetanus in Dogs
The signs of tetanus typically start with muscle stiffness near the original wound site followed by muscle spasms. Stiffness and spasms may gradually progress to other areas of the body.
Tetanus is most often identified by the muscle stiffness it causes, particularly in the jaw. It can also cause issues with other muscles in the face, neck, legs, and other parts of the body to cause curled lips, drooling, difficulty walking, stiff legs, and even difficulty breathing. Muscle tremors and spasms may be seen if the disease spreads and worsens, resulting in a dog that is unable to walk, breathe, or eat. Some dogs with tetanus look like they are growling, but they have lost control of the muscles that are responsible for curling their lips.
What Causes Tetanus in Dogs?
Tetanus is a disease caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani and can occur when a dog has an open wound that gets infected. The spores of the tetanus bacteria can be found everywhere in the environment including soil, dust, and manure.
- Clostridium tetani are deposited in the soil from the feces of animals.
- An open wound can allow Clostridium tetani to enter a dog's bloodstream and exert toxic effects.
- The resulting toxin, called tetanospasmin, enters the nerves surrounding the wound.
- From these nerves, the toxin continues to spread throughout the nervous system, including the spinal cord and the brain.
How Vets Diagnose Tetanus in Dogs
Tetanus is typically diagnosed based solely on the symptoms a dog is experiencing. A wound is not always present since it may take up to ten days after Clostridium tetani enter a wound to cause symptoms. A wound may heal before symptoms are ever noticed, or it may be so small that it isn't found.
A blood test to look for the bacteria is available, but most veterinarians do not utilize it since it is not an accurate or reliable test. Other laboratory screening, including blood work and X-rays, may be performed to ensure your dog is otherwise healthy.
How to Treat Tetanus
If tetanus is treated right away, the symptoms should not become severe and will only affect a localized area around the wound where the bacteria entered the dog's body. If left untreated, though, muscle rigidity will progress and likely affect the dog's entire body. To help avoid this progression, your veterinarian may administer an antitoxin medication, which will only work in the early stages of illness.
Most of the time, dogs diagnosed with tetanus will instead receive antibiotics to kill off the C. tetani bacteria that is releasing the toxin. If a wound is present, it may need to be debrided and thoroughly cleaned out as well. IV fluids and other supportive care may be necessary, depending on the severity of the infection.
Prognosis for Dogs with Tetanus
Tetanus survival rates are around 50 to 90 percent in dogs if the disease is properly treated—the earlier treatment is initiated, the higher the likelihood of survival. It may take several weeks of treatment and supportive care for a dog to make a complete recovery. Dogs that do not receive prompt treatment are more likely to die from the illness.
How to Prevent Tetanus
Since dogs do not commonly contract tetanus, they do not routinely receive tetanus vaccinations. You can, however, help to prevent the unlikely chance that your dog will get tetanus by thoroughly cleaning any wounds and seeking prompt veterinary care in case stitches, antibiotics, or other treatments are needed.
P. Pion, G. Spadafori. Tetanus in Pets. Veterinary partner. VIN.com.
H. Stämpfli, O. Oliver-Espinosa. Tetanus in animals - generalized conditions. Merck Veterinary Manual.
E. Royaux. Diagnosis and treatment of tetanus in cats and dogs. Veterinary Practice.