Dan Schaefer by Dan Schaefer May 04, 2021 6 min read

Tetanus. Even the word sounds scary. You probably think of tetanus as the disease you're supposed to get a shot for after you've stepped on a rusty nail. But did you know that our canine friends can also fall victim to tetanus?

Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is caused when a particular bacteria gets into an open, deep wound, such as one caused by a nail puncture. Beyond that, rusty nails or other metal objects don't have much to do with tetanus in dogs, or humans for that matter. Still, it's a serious disease, and your dog will need a professional veterinarian’s help to heal.

Read on to find out what causes tetanus in dogs, what the symptoms look like, and how the disease is treated. That way, you can take active steps to keep your pet safe. 

What Causes Tetanus in Dogs?

Tetanus is caused by the Clostridium tetani bacteria. This bacteria is commonly found in dirt and dust, as well as fecal matter. When spores of C. tetani enter the body through a wound, they multiply and then die off. As they die, they produce a neurotoxin called tetanospasmin. 

This neurotoxin is the root danger of tetanus in dogs and starts to cause the side effects that you'll see in a case of tetanus. The toxin binds to the nerves, affecting the neurotransmitters that control movement. Your dog’s movement will become limited, and you might notice them struggling to bend their limbs and walk normally.

Dogs might get tetanus if they suffer a puncture wound or have an open sore and then come in contact with dirt, dust, or feces infected with C. tetani. Because the C. tetani bacteria is anaerobic, it grows in conditions where there is no oxygen, like a deep wound.

Some dogs are at a greater risk for contracting tetanus than others based on their environment and circumstances. Larger dogs like Labradors or retrievers tend to be diagnosed with tetanus more often, especially those that live on farms, spend a lot of time outdoors, or have close access to manure or dead animals. 

Note that puppies or young dogs tend to have a proclivity for picking up foreign objects with their mouths. This could include items like dirty nails or glass that could introduce the C. tetani bacteria into a wound.

It's also possible for dogs to contract the clostridium tetani bacteria from foxtails or grass seed awns. These small, prickly plants can burrow through your dog's skin into the organs or blood vessels, potentially introducing the bacteria to your pet. These weeds are found all over North America and are particularly common in the Western United States. They tend to flourish in the warmer months but can grow almost all year.

What Are the Symptoms of Tetanus in Dogs?

tetanus in dogs: Dog looking at the camera while being carried by a woman

Symptoms of tetanus in dogs might not appear for weeks after the initial infection, perhaps even after a wound has healed. Symptoms could be mild, or they may be severe. They include: 

  • Stiffening of the neck and jaw muscles (lockjaw)
  • A physical stance characterized by stiff, rigid legs (sometimes called the sawhorse stance)
  • Muscle spasms
  • Erect ears
  • Drooling
  • Swelling of the face and/or unusual facial expressions
  • Fever
  • Hypersensitivity to touch, light, or sound
  • Difficulty eating or drinking
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Constipation
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis

There are two types of canine tetanus: localized tetanus and generalized tetanus. Localized tetanus is more common and involves muscle spasms close to the wound itself. It has a good prognosis and, therefore, a high survival rate. Generalized tetanus is more serious and occurs when the tetanospasmin neurotoxin spreads and starts to cause clinical signs in various areas around the body, including the head and limbs.

How Is Tetanus Diagnosed and Treated?

If you see any of the symptoms described above, take your dog to your veterinarian's office. Diagnosing tetanus can be difficult — that’s because blood tests aren't reliable thanks to the C. tetani bacteria's short lifespan. 

Still, a diagnosis will likely involve laboratory tests like a full blood count, chemistry profile, and urinalysis. A test called electromyography, which records electrical activity in your dog's muscles, is also frequently used. 

Your vet will probably make a definitive diagnosis based on lab test results plus physical signs like stiff muscles as well as a health history that includes a serious wound. Sometimes, because dogs with tetanus can be hypersensitive to touch, sedation might be necessary to complete the physical exam. 

While every veterinarian's process might look slightly different, treating cases of tetanus usually involves three main stages:

Stabilization

This stage might include treatment steps like intravenous fluids to reverse dehydration or oxygen supplementation if your dog’s respiratory rate is low. Laxatives or other medications might be given if a dog is suffering from constipation. (Try Native Pet's Organic Pumpkin Powder at home to keep your dog from getting constipated.) 

If a dog hasn't been eating or drinking because of throat or diaphragm paralysis, a feeding tube may need to be inserted. In the most severe cases, dogs might have to be put on a ventilator. 

Medication

In this stage, various medications are administered to treat your dog's tetanus. Antibiotics like penicillin and metronidazole will be given to stop the C. tetani bacteria from spreading. Sedative medications like chlorpromazine or acepromazine can help with your dog's hypersensitivity to touch, sound, and light. And muscle relaxants like diazepam or phenobarbital may be given to relieve muscle stiffness.

There is a tetanus antitoxin, an antibody product made from the blood of horses or humans, which destroys the neurotoxin produced by C. tetani. However, its use is still controversial in veterinary medicine circles. Because it's made from the blood of other species, it can be highly inflammatory to your dog's immune system. The decision to use the antitoxin on affected dogs can be made on a case-by-case basis. Still, the antitoxin is used commonly enough that it is a potential treatment option for your dog.

Nursing Care

Supportive care measures are the final step in the treatment process. An extended hospital stay will probably be necessary, and your dog might need round-the-clock observation in a dark and quiet room. Your veterinarian and their team will get your dog set up with soft bedding, a feeding tube if necessary, a process for going to the bathroom, and more until they've made a complete recovery.

Can Tetanus in Dogs Be Prevented?

Dog running in a field

One piece of good news is that tetanus is, overall, rare in dogs. And that's one reason why there is no vaccination for it. You've probably received the tetanus vaccine and boosters at some point, but because dogs are more naturally resistant to tetanus than humans, a dog vaccine doesn't exist. 

Preventing tetanus in dogs involves reducing the likelihood that your dog will encounter something that introduces the C. tetani bacteria to their system. Don't let your dog roam around outdoors unsupervised, especially if there are objects like nails, glass shards, tools, or other items that could cut or puncture your pet's skin. Don't let your dog fight with other dogs or animals, as bites or scratch marks could allow the bacteria in. 

If you have foxtails or grass seed awns on your property, get rid of them if you can. Look for small, barbed, weed-like plants sprouting among normal grass. Keep your dog away from these plants to be safe. 

Tetanus in Dogs: What Dog Owners Need to Know

Tetanus in dogs is a serious condition, albeit a rare one. It happens when the Clostridium tetani bacteria makes its way into your dog's body through a deep wound and starts releasing the dangerous neurotoxin, tetanospasmin.

As soon as you see the classic symptoms of tetanus — muscle stiffness around the neck and jaw, muscle spasms, erect ears, swelling in the face, and hypersensitivity to touch, light, or sound — let your veterinarian know. And if your dog suffers a serious cut or puncture wound, take them to your vet's office or an emergency veterinary facility as soon as you can. 

While you can't prevent a case of tetanus through diet alone, keeping your dog in good health through proper nutrition is always a good idea. A healthy immune system is more resistant to harmful agents, including bacteria like C. tetani. Native Pet's all-natural probiotic powder is a good place to start.

As is the case with most diseases, early diagnosis and treatment of tetanus always help. That's why it's so important to know the signs and take quick action. It's the best way to help your dog make a complete recovery. 

Would you like to learn more about your dog's health, wellness, and nutrition needs? Visit the Native Pet blog for more great articles.
Dan Schaefer
Dan Schaefer


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