How many times when growing up did you fall, scratch your knee, get a cut or step on something? Do you remember your parents rushing to clean it and asking all kinds of questions? And the dreaded – you may need a shot! Yup! The dreaded tetanus shot to make sure that you don’t get locked jaw. What?
Although tetanus is a concern for humans, horses and livestock, it is relatively rare in dogs. If you are a cat lover, you will be happy to know that they are quite resistant and hardly ever get infected. Dogs, on the other hand, fall somewhere in the middle of the tetanus sensitivity spectrum.
What is tetanus?
It is a disease that comes from the bacteria Clostridium tetani, which is actually found in the dirt and not the rust or metal as commonly believed.
The Clostridium tetani fungus releases spores into the bloodstream that release tetanospasmin toxin. This toxin binds to the tissue in the nervous system and blocks inhibitory nerve signals causing severe muscle contractions and exaggerated responses to stimuli.
Dogs experience similar symptoms but are more resistant to the toxin than humans.
How do dogs get it?
Clostridium tetani is found in dirt/soil and intestinal tracts. It is usually introduced into the dog’s body through puncture wounds, whether by stepping on rusty metal that had dirt with Clostridia or soil bacteria on it or your dog rolling in contaminated soil after receiving a deep bite wound.
There has also been a study that showed Foxtails as another potential source of tetanus for dogs.
Sometimes, when the wound has healed, the bacteria is still present and multiplying. Even in the absence of oxygen, it can start to reproduce, producing the tetanospasmin toxin.
As stated above, dogs are more resistant to the toxin than humans. For those who do become sick, most experience only mild symptoms. Those who experience more severe symptoms will need to see a vet for more intensive care.
Here are some of the symptoms your dog may experience from the toxin should they contract it: (one or a combination)
- Convulsions and involuntary muscles spasms
- Inability to blink
- Pain or sensitivity to touch
- Paralysis of respiratory muscles (severe cases)
- rictus sardonicus (“sardonic grin”) – ears pulled back, lips pulled back, eyes bulging
- Rigidity in limbs
- “Sawhorse Stance” – rigidity in all 4 limbs
- Sensitive to light and clapping (sounds)
Because of their high resistance to the toxin, dogs usually have a long incubation period, ranging from 10 to 14 days. Tetanus usually develops in the area of the wound before spreading to other areas and eventually the head.
Once you start to notice any of the above symptoms, take your dog to the vet immediately. Your vet will review your dog’s wound history and the present symptoms. Laboratory test may be necessary, before your vet administers the following:
- antibiotics to kill the Clostridia (penicillin)
- muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sedatives to address rigidity and spasms
- tetanus antitoxin (*controversial – Not everyone agrees to this)
It is important to offer good nursing care by being attentive and following instructions when treating your dog. Generally, dogs who are suffering from tetanus cannot walk and need soft bedding with frequent rotation to prevent bed sores.
They may also need to be hand fed or fed by a nasogastric or gastric tube since their jaws could be clenched. Depending on how severe their symptoms are, they may need to have assistance with expressing their bladder. A darken room with minimal stimulation is the preference since noise and light can cause your dog to experience spasms and seizures.
Whether recovery is in the home or veterinary facility, it can take weeks to even months, before your dog is completely healthy and back to normal.
Can your dog get a tetanus shot?
There are tetanus toxoid vaccines for humans, horses and sheep, that have been FDA approved, but currently there is no tetanus shot for dogs.
There has been some discussion about it, but the expense and ethical considerations to vaccine development along with the fact that dogs are pretty resistant to it, and with the treatments being so effective, a vaccine is not warranted at this time.
Since there is no vaccine available the best way to protect your dog is to clean any wound carefully and thoroughly, especially if they are bites or puncture wounds.
Monitor your dog for any of the symptoms previously described and contact your vet immediately if you notice stiffness in the wound area. The best prevention is early detection and treatment!
Tips to Remember
Dogs can get tetanus, but they are more resistant than humans
Tetanus is from bacteria found in dirt, not rust or metals
The bacteria multiples in a no oxygen environment and produces tetanospasmin toxin
The toxin binds to the tissue of the nervous system and blocks nerve signals
Severity of illness varies from mild to severe
There are a variety of symptoms – convulsions, pain, rigidity, spasms
If you notice one or a combination of symptoms contact your vet immediately
There is no tetanus vaccine available for dogs
Your vet may treat your dog with penicillin and other medications
Prevent the possibility of tetanus by thorough cleaning of bite or puncture wound and monitoring of symptoms
The best prevention is early detection and treatment!