Tetanus in Dogs: Types, Symptoms, Treatment & Prognosis

Tetanus in Dogs: Types, Symptoms, Treatment & Prognosis

Author WDF Staff


Humans are not the only species that can get tetanus. In fact, horses, cats, and dogs can get it. The good news is that tetanus is pretty rare in dogs, but that doesn’t mean it cannot happen. If you are worried about your dog’s health and think they’re at risk of getting it, here are a few things you should know about tetanus in dogs, its symptoms, and treatment.

What is tetanus?

Most of us heard about tetanus but are not entirely sure what it is. Well, tetanus is a form of toxicity. It is caused by the toxin Clostridium tetani bacteria produces when it starts reproducing fast. This condition can affect the dog’s (or human’s) nerves, spinal cord, and brain. It will lead to hyperexcitability and severe spasms. If left untreated, the condition will develop and eventually end with death. The good news is that dogs are not as susceptible to it as we are. There are two forms of tetanus in dogs - localized or generalized.

Localized tetanus

Localized tetanus is more commonly seen in dogs. It will be localized in the area around the wound, and most symptoms will be isolated to the immediate area.

dogs walking

Generalized tetanus

Generalized tetanus is spread across the dog’s body. In most cases, facial muscles will show stiffness, and the rest will follow. Many dogs develop something called “sawhorse” legs. They cannot bend them even to stand up, and their legs are stiff in rigid extension.

How can my dog get tetanus?

The infection is pretty similar in all species. The C. tetani bacteria will enter a wound and start reproducing. One of the by-products is the toxin. The bacteria is not dangerous in the dog’s gut or on their skin, but when it enters a puncture wound, it will get into an environment it needs for reproduction. These bacteria thrive in low-oxygen environments and cannot reproduce outside of them.

One of the main issues about these bacteria is that they’re spread everywhere. Its spores can survive in the environment for years. They can be present in anything we touch. These bacteria are shed through animal feces and are pretty resilient. If an open wound gets in touch with these spores, it can get infected.

How can I know if my dog has tetanus?

Most dog owners will notice something’s wrong around the wound area. Since localized tetanus is more common in dogs, most of us will see the dog has problems, like stiffness, in the same limb they had a wound at. Many dog owners don’t report it immediately. They think their dogs are “sparing” their limbs because they have a wound. However, the easiest way to find out if your dog has tetanus is by getting confirmation from your vet. In the meantime, you can learn what the symptoms are and make an educated guess.

golden-retriever walking

Tetanus symptoms

All physical conditions will display specific symptoms, and tetanus is no different. This condition can be handled, but it is crucial you react as soon as possible and get your dog the treatment it needs. Here are the most common symptoms of tetanus in dogs;

  • Abnormal facial expressions
  • Constipation
  • Death (inability to breathe)
  • Dehydration
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty eating and drinking
  • Drooling
  • Erect ears
  • Fever
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain when touched
  • Standing with straight, rigid legs
  • Stiffening of the neck and jaw
  • Stiffening of the tail
  • Swelling of the face

Keep in mind that most dogs develop symptoms 5 - 10 days after exposure. However, there were cases where dogs showed symptoms as early as 3 days and as late as 25 days after initial exposure.

How is tetanus in dogs diagnosed?

There are a couple of tests your vet might ask for if they suspect your dog has tetanus. The first thing they will do is examine the dog’s symptoms. After the preliminary check, the vet can order blood tests, urinalysis, and chest x-rays to ensure there are no secondary infections they need to clear. Some tests for C. tetani bacteria are available, but those tests are not trustworthy and experienced vets rarely recommend them.

How is tetanus in dogs treated?

Most of us know there is a tetanus shot we can take. That shot is available to dogs, as well. However, the antitoxin is only effective if the toxin has not attached itself to nerve cells. That means it should be given as a precaution to dogs with wounds. However, this antitoxin can cause severe side effects, so make sure you talk to your vet about the options.

The second thing your vet will prescribe is an antibiotic. This won’t do much against the toxin, but it will eliminate the bacteria, which means further toxin release will be prevented. Different antibiotics are effective against C. tetani bacteria, and your vet knows which type your dog should take.

If your vet can find a wound on the dog’s body, they might remove the dead tissues surrounding the wound. If that happens, they will surgically remove the dead tissue and bacteria from the wound. The fewer bacteria, the less toxin produced and released in the dog’s bloodstream.

The last part of tetanus treatment is intensive nursing care. Dogs that show severe stiffness need to get intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. If they’re unable to eat, a feeding tube might be required. They need to be placed on soft bedding to avoid pressure sores and moved regularly from one side to the other. The dog should be kept in quiet, dark areas where the light won’t stimulate further spasms or seizures.

What is the prognosis for dogs with tetanus?

The exact prognosis will depend on the severity of the condition. Localized tetanus has an excellent prognosis. Over 90% of dogs respond well to early treatment and show significant improvements within a week. It is expected to be fully resolved in 3 - 4 weeks.

Dogs that show signs of generalized tetanus have a slightly worse prognosis. About 50 - 90 % is the expected survival rate if the dog appears unable to stand or develops secondary infections, like pneumonia.

World Dog Finder team

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