July 15, 2011
Tetanus in dogs

Tetanus is an often fatal disease of the nervous system that leads to some degree of muscle spasms in the dog. It occurs when the bacteria Clostridium tetani enters a wound, causes an infection and then releases a toxin that attacks the nervous system which causes generalized symptoms that eventually affects all areas of the animal’s body.{{more}} This is a relatively rare condition today.

A few weeks ago I had a patient exhibiting the classical symptoms of Tetanus. Very characteristic in this disease is the stiffening of the ears and the stilted gait (walking like a robot) The dog had what appeared to be a permanent frown on its forehead due to muscular spasms, he had the characteristic lock jaw, and even though he wanted to eat, he could not get the jaws open. After being hospitalized and treated for about one week, the patient was sent home and made a complete recovery over a period of a few weeks. In my career as a veterinarian that spans a period of 20 years, this was the 5th case of tetanus in dogs that I have seen.

As this infection, like many others, starts simply and innocently with a wound that becomes infected, it is important to be reminded that all wounds should be properly tended to early and not just allowed to heal or “see what happens”. The bacteria produces a powerful toxin that targets the nervous system. In less serious cases, symptoms include the dog holding their ears and tails up, walking stiffly and pulling the lips back. In more advanced cases, dogs cannot stand, will have all legs out and very rigid, be unable to open their mouths (hence the old term “lockjaw”), have a type of seizure activity and die due to respiratory failure. The time it takes between exposure to the bacteria and display of the symptoms ranges between two days and two months. Most often, symptoms will begin within fourteen days of initial injury. Diagnosis is based on the clinical signs and history of having had a wound recently.


Once tetanus is suspected, rapid treatment is essential. Any infected wound should be cleaned. Dead, infected tissue should be cut away under sedation. Flushing the wound free of any pus and administration of antibiotics is basic. Administration of a tetanus antitoxin is in my opinion the only sure way to tackle the condition. The antibiotics will kill the bacteria, but will not affect the toxins already in the system, that causes the clinical signs of the disease. The Tetanus antitoxin, neutralizes the toxins in the body, thus helping the animal to return to normal.

Keeping the dog in a dark and very quiet environment is also important. Feeding through the IV or with a feeding tube can be used to maintain the patient. As long as the dog does not stop breathing and can be sustained for 7-10 days, they can recover completely in about a month.

For further information, contact: Dr. Collin Boyle
Unique Animal Care Co. Ltd. Tel: 456 4981