Tetanus in Dogs

dog laying down on the floor

 

Westend61 / Getty Images

Tetanus can affect cats, horses, and even dogs if they have an open wound that comes into contact with a specific type of bacteria. This disease causes muscle stiffness and ultimately death if left untreated so it is important for dog owners to be aware of the causes, symptoms, and treatments of tetanus.

What Is Tetanus in Dogs?

Tetanus is an infection that affects the nervous system of a dog and causes muscle problems. It is also known as lockjaw because of how it can inhibit normal function of the jaw. This disease can result in death due to the affects it can have on the throat and diaphragm and therefore a dog's breathing ability but it is thankfully not a common disease in dogs.

Signs of Tetanus in Dogs

  • Curled lips
  • Clenched jaw (lockjaw)
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Muscle tremors or spasms
  • Unable to bend legs
  • Difficulty breathing

Tetanus is most often identified by the muscle stiffness it causes, particularly in the jaw which is why it is also referred to as lockjaw. 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, an inability to bend 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, breath, or eat. Some dogs with tetanus look like they are growling and aggressive but they have really lost control of the muscles that are responsible for curling their lips.

Causes of 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. Clostridium tetani is found in soil since it is passed through the intestinal tracts of other animals through the feces. A dog with a wound that gets some infected dirt or feces in it can allow Clostridium tetani to reproduce and spread. It also then releases a toxin called tetanospasmin which goes into the nerves surrounding the wound. From these nerves, the toxin continues to spread and eventually goes into the rest of the nervous system which consists of the spinal cord and the brain. This toxin is what is responsible for the muscle issues dogs with tetanus experience.

Diagnosing 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 enters 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 C. tetani 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 though to ensure your dog is otherwise healthy.

Treatment of Tetanus in Dogs

If tetanus is treated right away, the symptoms should not become very severe but if left untreated they will progress. To avoid this progression, if your dog is diagnosed with tetanus early, your veterinarian may opt to administer an antitoxin to attempt to stop the progression of the tetanospasmin toxin. If the toxin has already spread to the nerves of a dog then the antitoxin will not do any good, though. It can also cause some side effects so antitoxin is not always given.

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. Survival rates are up to 90% if the disease is promptly treated but it may take up to a month for a dog to make a complete recovery.

How to Prevent Tetanus in Dogs

Since tetanus is not a common problem in dogs 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 it gets and seeking veterinary care in case stitches and/or antibiotics are needed.