Can Dogs Get Tetanus?
Whether it's carefree puppy play or curious sniffs and licks, your dog will likely encounter a rusty nail or two during their adventures. You may even start to wonder if your dog can get tetanus or not. The short answer is yes. Dogs and other mammals can get tetanus, and it can pose a serious threat to their health.
The good news is that, according to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, tetanus is rare in both dogs and cats because of the tetanus bacterium's inability to "break in and onto" nervous tissue in these species. Let's take a deeper dive into tetanus and how your dog might contract it.
Can Dogs Get Tetanus from Rust?
It's a myth that the disease is caused by rust; however, rust can harbor dirt contaminated with spores of the bacteria involved in the disease Clostridium tetani. Spores of these bacteria are found worldwide in the dirt, putting dogs all over at risk, though the risk is low. The bacterial spores are adept at surviving in any environment and typically enter the body through wounds, such as the typical cut or scrape we associate with tetanus. Other ways a dog can become infected include puncture wounds, tick bites and even tiny cuts in the gums associated with chewing on everything a puppy can get their mouth on. Once in the body, the spores multiply and begin their damage.
The clinical signs of the disease typically associated with tetanus — muscle stiffness and spasms — are actually caused by a toxin that acts on the body's nerve cells. While other toxins are also produced, it is this tetanospasmin toxin that is significant for the clinical signs seen with the disease.
Clinical Signs of Tetanus in Dogs
After an incubation period of a few days to a few weeks, clinical signs of the disease can present in two forms: localized and generalized.
Dogs with the localized form of tetanus typically have only one muscle or limb near the site of infection that becomes noticeably stiff. If the pet parent seeks veterinary care at this point, the stiffness may not spread. However, if it's not caught at this early juncture, other nearby limbs or muscles can become stiff before the entire nervous system of the dog is wholly affected.
Dogs with generalized clinical signs are more severely affected. With generalized tetanus, clinical signs can include:
- Facial muscle spasms ("lockjaw")
- Facial swelling
- Protrusion of the third eyelids, commonly referred to as "cherry eye"
- Excessive drooling
- Difficulty swallowing
- Regurgitation or megaesophagus
- Extreme muscle stiffness of multiple limbs
- Hyperextension of the limbs
- Extension of the tail
- Stiff gait
- Difficulty rising or sitting
- Atypically erect ears
- Wrinkled forehead or contracted and distorted facial muscles
- Elevated body temperature
- Altered heart and respiratory rates
- Inability to walk
- "Saw-horse" stance and frequent falls
- Increased vocalization due to muscle spasms of the voice box
- Difficulty breathing due to muscle spasms of the chest wall or diaphragm
What to Do if You Suspect Your Dog Has Tetanus
If your dog is exhibiting the clinical signs listed above, seek veterinary evaluation right away. Luckily, diagnosing tetanus is typically accomplished by your vet finding a wound during a physical exam. A recent surgery or history of wounds can also point your vet in the right direction, though surgery is rarely a source of infection when sterile techniques are followed.
Remember, treatment of tetanus is much more successful with early intervention. If your dog has a wound from a rusty nail, it is best to have the wound evaluated quickly. Proper wound management is always wise, regardless of a dog's exposure to tetanus.
Treatment for Tetanus in Dogs
Tetanus is often treatable when it's caught and addressed before it becomes severe, though treatment can take weeks or even months. Mildly affected dogs may only require antibiotics and proper care of the wound. Surgically debriding the wound can also eliminate additional neurotoxin-producing spores at the sight of the injury.
Generalized cases of tetanus require more intensive treatment and hospitalization with IV fluids, feeding tubes, manual bladder expression and may even require a mechanical ventilator to control breathing. Darkened rooms with minimal stimulation are also needed to decrease the activity of the dog's nervous system.
Now that you know dogs can get tetanus, keep your eyes peeled for any injuries your pup might have. Remember, there is not a vaccine available for dogs against tetanus, though you can review vaccines for canines every so often to check. Without a tetanus vaccine for our dogs, proper wound care is of utmost importance. Because bite and puncture wounds put dogs at risk of developing tetanus or other nasty infections, be sure to have these injuries evaluated by your vet.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert.