Attention Dog Owners: Treating Tetanus in Dogs
"The Finnster"

What is tetanus?
Clostridum tetani is an anaerobic bacterium that is widely distributed in the soil. C. tetani usually enters the body through a wound, and in anaerobic conditions the spores germinate and produce toxin. The toxin usually spreads by traveling along peripheral nerves to the spinal cord, but can also spread through the body via the blood. The toxin acts on the central nervous system by interfering with the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters. Muscles contract and become spastic, and affected animals are particularly sensitive to stimulation.

The incubation period for tetanus varies from three to 21 days, although clinical signs usually are seen within five to 10 days of infection. The initial signs typically reflect the location of the source of infection. Localized tetanus, such as rigidity of one leg, is more common than generalized tetanus in dogs and cats due to their relative resistance. Involvement of the facial muscles typically manifests as inability to open the jaw (trismus; a.k.a. “lockjaw”) with lips drawn back (risus sardonicus), and erect ears. Diagnosis is usually based on finding a wound in the presence of typical signs. In addition to identifying and removing the source of infection, treatment includes antitoxin, antibiotics effective against C. tetani such as penicillin and metronidazole, sedatives and muscle relaxants, and supportive care.

Most dogs with localized tetanus or generalized tetanus without respiratory compromise recover if given enough time and supportive care. The prognosis usually is guarded-to-poor in dogs with generalized tetanus and respiratory complications. Recovery from tetanus does not provide future protection against the disease, and vaccination for dogs is neither available nor recommended.

Although the disease is rare in dogs, dog owners should seek veterinary attention for any wounds noticed on their animals. Although humans are susceptible to tetanus, it is not considered contagious from an affected animal since a wound is necessary for incubation of the bacteria. Exposed people should consult their physicians for specific recommendations

On the weekend of March 28th 2004, we took our Yellow Lab, the Mighty Finn MacCool, to play in Sope Creek. He loves to go there to swim and chase after his duck. After some serious exercise those two days, Finn was really tired all week long. We thought we did good by tiring him out.

As usual, because Finn tends to have sensitive paws anyway, he was limping around a bit that week, moving a little slow. Towards the middle of the week, his paw started to swell, which we thought was due mainly to the fact that he'd been licking it constantly.

We took him to our vet's office on Friday because we were going to be going out of town that weekend anyway. Our vets treated his paw, gave him some antibiotics, and put an e-collar on him to prevent him from licking it.

When I came in on Monday morning to pick him up, the vet told me how they treated him and what to watch out for with his paw. She also mentioned that his third eyelid started showing over the weekend. Often times, this can happen because of stress, nervousness or anxiety. If you've ever seen a shark blink on the Discovery channel, you've seen a third eyelid that opens/closes just after a shark blinks. The vet mentioned that his eyes should return to normal within a few days.

I took Finn home and he was really lethargic. After a while, I noticed that he was having some problems breathing, could not swallow very easily, and seemed to be a little stiff when walking around.

Later that afternoon, Finn was not getting any better; in fact he seemed to be getting worse. His ears were pinned back, his mouth seemed pulled back, and his legs were stiff. I called the vet back and she suggested I bring him back in. In the vet's office, everyone was puzzled. At that point, the vet thought that it could possibly be tetanus. I wasn't quite sure what that meant, but judging by the vet's demeanor, I knew it was not good. They were going to put him under 24-hour supportive care, monitor his breathing, give him some more antibiotics, and get the antitoxin for tetanus.

Unfortunately, the warning signs for tetanus do not start appearing until 5-20 days after the initial infection. Tetanus creates a toxin that is released into the bloodstream, attacking the central nervous system. Often times, the toxins can limit a dogs breathing so much that it can cause respiratory arrest.

Because tetanus is so rare in dogs, very few vets ever treat the disease, thereby making it very difficult to diagnose. Of all the vets in our practice, I believe only one of them had ever treated it once in an educational environment, even in 30 years of practice.

I gave the Finnster two kisses goodbye, one for my wife and one for me. He wagged his tail and tried to lick me, but his mouth was too dry. He walked as best he could down the hall with the vet. I left the office in tears.

The vet immediately began administering some more antibiotics, researching the disease, and calling around to different veterinarians and vet schools for information on how best to treat the disease. They put him in a very quiet, dark room with no noise or lights because any unnecessary stimulus to a dog with tetanus can induce a seizure.

After our vet's office closed, they took Finn over to the local emergency animal clinic. There, they would continue to watch him throughout the rest of the night. Our vet left the clinic and drove all the way to Cumming, GA to get some of the antitoxin for him. Due to the rarity of this disease, it's hard to find the antitoxin in Metro Atlanta. She found a large animal clinic that had some in Cumming.

They gave him the antitoxin overnight, in addition to sedatives and muscle relaxants. In the morning, the vet picked Finn up and he wagged his tail when he saw her. He seemed to be doing better. She gave me a status call and said that we're now in a wait-and-see stage.

Later that day (Tuesday April 6, 2004), the vet called me and told that Finn seemed to be getting a little worse. He was having spasms and diarrhea. His breathing was still ok, but she wanted to let me know that they were watching him closely and that they were probably going to give him a feeding tube and possibly start assisting with his breathing.

About 20-30 minutes later, I received perhaps the worst call of my life. The vet said that Finn went into respiratory arrest and they were not able to revive him. Apparently the toxins that had already made into his system had already spread too much, especially given the fact that he had been on antibiotics since Friday.

Finn would have been two years old next month. He was the most lovable and best looking (if I do say so myself) dog I've ever met. He had more "personality" than a lot of "persons" I've met in my life. He continually taught us about both dogs and ourselves. We'll miss him dearly.

The moral of the story is that I want to urge ALL dog owners to be aware of this disease. If you are at least familiar with the symptoms, it might save your dog's life. I'm not asking you to start watching your dog closer when they're outside, because dogs will be dogs and that will not be a very fruitful effort.

Do some research. Find out more about the disease. Learn to recognize the symptoms. Tell your friends about it. Share it with any other dog owners. Ask your vet if they've ever treated it. If you ever find any minor cuts or scratches on your dog, keep the possibility of tetanus in the back of your mind that way if the symptoms begin to arise, you might have a chance of containing the toxins early. I'm certainly not suggesting that you panic at any cut or scratch that your dog comes across... let me assure you, Finn was a very playful dog and was always getting into trouble here and there.

I don't want to make people sad or feel sorry for Finn (or us for that matter). I want to do what I can to ensure that no dog owner and dog have to go through what Aimee, Finn, and I went through. We love Finn very dearly and our only regret is that he's not with us today. We want to educate and, where possible, prevent other dogs from getting this horrible disease.

Dermot and Aimee Waters

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Useful Links
• "Tetanus - Merck Veterinary Manual
• "Dealing with tetanus in a dog"
• "Curing a pet with tetanus"
• "Goodbye Katie"
• Provet Healthcare Information: Tetanus
• Penn Veterinary Medicine: Tucker battles tetanus -- and wins!
• Greenhills Veterinary Hospital
• Bloat - Gastric Dilatation/Volvulus - Another rare disease