What to Know About Tetanus in Dogs

border collie australian shepherd mix dog looking sleepy under a blanket

Although tetanus is more common in humans than in canines, dogs can still be affected by it. Here’s what to know about tetanus in dogs:

What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a medical condition characterized by muscle spasms that cause affected muscles to seize up and become rigid. It is caused by a toxin released by Clostridium tetani bacteria that leads to hyperexcitability in the nerves, brain, and spinal cord, which causes muscle spasms.

Humans and horses are more susceptible to the toxin than dogs and cats, so are more likely to experience symptoms of tetanus. Although your dog is less susceptible and tetanus in dogs is uncommon, it can still occur in canines.

How Do Dogs Get Tetanus?

Typically, tetanus occurs when Clostridium tetani bacteria enter a wound and begin to reproduce rapidly, which releases tetanospasmin. This is the toxin that can cause tetanus. From within the wounded area, the toxin spreads to surrounding nerves. Once it enters the nervous system, it can then travel to the spinal cord and to the brain.

Spores of this bacteria can be found throughout the environment, including in animal feces. It can also be found in dirt and dust where it can survive for years. This bacteria does not usually cause issues on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract.

So, although your dog may get sick from eating feces or other things they shouldn’t, they won’t get tetanus from it. Clostridium tetani need a low-oxygen environment to produce the toxin, which it can find when it enters something like a puncture wound.

This is why people tend to get checked for tetanus or get a tetanus booster when they have injuries involving rusty nails or dirty metal; these injuries create the perfect environments for Clostridium tetani to thrive and cause tetanus.

How Long do Tetanus Symptoms Take to Show up?

Most commonly, symptoms of tetanus will show up 5-10 days after the initial wound happened. But, you could see signs sooner or later.

Tetanus symptoms have shown up three days after initial exposure. They have also shown up three weeks after initial exposure.

Because dogs are not as susceptible to the toxin that causes tetanus, they tend to have a long incubation period with it and tend to develop more localized symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Tetanus in Dogs?

The symptoms of tetanus in dogs tend to fall into two main categories – localized and generalized.

Symptoms of Localized Tetanus

Although tetanus in dogs is rare, when it does show up, localized tetanus is the most common type.

Dogs affected with localized tetanus will have muscle stiffness in the muscles near the infected wound or in the wounded limb. The muscles will be stiff, rigid, and firm to the touch. You may also see muscle tremors occur.

Over time, localized tetanus can progress to generalized tetanus. However, this is not always the case.

Symptoms of Generalized Tetanus

Dogs affected with generalized tetanus will have muscle rigidity in widespread areas of their bodies. They may walk stiffly with the tail extended rigidly behind them or held up. Dogs experiencing generalized tetanus may be unable to stand because they cannot bend their legs. These dogs may end up in a “sawhorse” stance where all four legs are fully extended and rigid.

Generalized tetanus also often affects muscles in the face. For dogs, they may have a constant wrinkled forehead caused by muscle spasms. They could also have an elevated third eyelid and experience risus sardonicus, which is taken from a Latin phrase meaning “sinister smile”. This occurs when muscle spasms affect their mouth and cause their lips to pull back rigidly. The jaws are also often affected, resulting in lockjaw.

Dogs affected with tetanus in this way may be unable to swallow, which leaves them drooling excessively and unable to eat. Dogs drool for a variety of reasons, but excessive drooling is one of the symptoms you should never ignore in your dog. Tetanus is an unlikely culprit in dogs, but excessive drool is often a sign that something is seriously wrong, so you should get to the vet when you see it.

Tetanus can also cause muscle spasms in the diaphragm or throat, which leads to breathing difficulties. On top of that, generalized tetanus also often causes fever in dogs. However, the fever is not usually caused by infection and tends to be a side effect from the constantly contracted muscles producing heat.

How Do You Treat Tetanus in Dogs?

If you suspect your dog has tetanus, or is showing any other concerning symptoms, the first step is to get to your veterinarian. In cases of tetanus in dogs, a wound can sometimes be found during a general examination to help support that diagnosis.

But, your vet will typically run a few tests to assess your dog’s health. Based on how far along it is and the severity of the symptoms, your vet will also be able to determine the best course of treatment for your dog.

Surgically Clean the Wound

If a wound is discovered, your vet may conduct surgery to clean out the wound as much as possible. By removing the dead tissue surrounding the wound, Clostridium tetani are also removed, which prevents the bacteria from releasing any more toxin into the wound.

Administer an Antitoxin

If it’s discovered early enough, a tetanus antitoxin can be administered to reduce the severity of symptoms. The antitoxin prevents the tetanus toxin from attaching to nerve cells. But, it is not likely to help if the toxin has already attached to nerves and it can have big side effects.

Give Them Antibiotics

If the antitoxin is not right for your dog, antibiotics can also be used to help treat tetanus. They won’t affect the toxin that has already occurred, but they will stop the Clostridium tetani infection and prevent further release of the toxin. Depending on your dog’s situation, antibiotics may be used in conjunction with the antitoxin.

Provide Intensive Nursing Care

Regardless of other measures, all dogs dealing with tetanus will require intense nursing care. They often need IV fluids to prevent dehydration. Dogs experiencing issues with eating may need feeding tubes. They will need soft, clean bedding and will need to be turned regularly to prevent sores.

Loud noises, a lot of sounds, and bright lights can make muscle spasms worse, so dogs with tetanus often need to be kept in a dark, quiet area. They may also be given medication to help reduce the severity of their muscle spasms. Unfortunately, many of these medications and antibiotics also come with potentially significant side effects, so dogs taking them will also need to be closely monitored.

Is the Prognosis for Tetanus in Dogs Good?

The prognosis all depends on how severe it is. Overall, various studies report a 50-90% survival rate for dogs with tetanus, which is good. Because tetanus in dogs is rare and dogs are less susceptible to the toxin, they generally respond well to treatment.

Localized tetanus tends to be the less severe type and responds well to early treatment. It may take 3-4 weeks for a complete recovery, but you will often see improvement within one week of treatment. However, if a dog has generalized tetanus, is unable to stand, or has secondary infections, treatment is more difficult and can take longer, which also makes the prognosis worse.

How Can I Prevent Tetanus in My Dog?

Because dogs are less susceptible to tetanus and it is rare in the species, a tetanus vaccination is not readily available or recommended for them. The biggest way to protect your dog from tetanus and other issues is to regularly check your dog for wounds and make sure any wounds or injuries are treated promptly and thoroughly by your vet.

Flushing wounds thoroughly helps remove bacteria that cause infection, including Clostridium tetani if any spores are present. Also, following wound care with an appropriate round of antibiotics further reduces the risk of tetanus and other more common infections. Not every wound will require antibiotics, but it’s worth the trip to the vet to make sure your dog gets the proper treatment they need.

Additionally, watch your dog for signs of stiff or rigid muscles or limbs. If you see that or other signs of tetanus or other issues in your dog, make an appointment with your vet immediately. If it is tetanus, the earlier you catch it and start treatment, the better. And, if it’s something else, it’s still better to catch it early even if it is something minor.

These are the basics of what to know about tetanus in dogs. Thankfully, you likely won’t need to worry about it because dogs are less susceptible to the effects and it is not a common condition for them. But, it’s still good to be informed in order to better protect and care for your dog in case something happens.