A Primer on Canine Tetanus

SFSBlog_tetanusOdds are really good that none of the dogs you’ll ever know will develop tetanus. So, why have I chosen to write about this disease? Blame it on Facebook (FB). For those of you who use FB, when I describe the vegetative trance one can enter while scrolling through a FB news feed, you know exactly what I’m talking about. This is the state I was in when I happened to scroll past a photo of a Labrador’ish-looking dog whose facial expression appeared pretty much just like the dog pictured here. This very classic photo pulled me right out of my FB trance.

The text accompanying the photo was a plea for help in the way of “Can anyone tell me what is wrong with my dog?” The FB poster indicated that her vet had already examined her dog a few times, but there was still no diagnosis. Even with baytril (an antibiotic) and pain medication on board, her dog was steadily getting worse. Her dog was still able to walk, but appeared very stiff.

I don’t usually get involved in requests for a “photo diagnosis.” A single photo can usually translate into a dozen or more diagnoses. However, this particular photo was classic- a textbook case of tetanus. And, I knew that, without appropriate treatment administered just as soon as possible, this dog would be doomed. I felt a moral obligation to respond.

I posted a comment letting the FB poster know that her dog likely had tetanus and was in need of intensive therapy. I encouraged her to seek help ASAP, ideally by way of an emergency hospital, or veterinary specialist such as an internist or criticalist. I asked if the dog had a recent wound that would have allowed the tetanus organism to gain entry.

The response arrived within seconds. Sure enough, a week or so ago the dog had been limping due to a cut on his toe. She thanked me profusely and let me know that she would get help for her dog right away. I wished her the best of luck and our FB conversation ended.

The cause of tetanus

Tetanus is caused by Clostridium tetani, a soil bacterium that can enter the bloodstream via a wound, most commonly on the foot or in the mouth. Puppies can develop tetanus because they chew on sticks and other soil-contaminated goodies, and they have open wounds in their gums created by the loss of baby teeth.

The clostridial organism produces a toxin called tetanospasmin that binds to nerve cells and interferes with the function of a particular neurotransmitter (a chemical released from a nerve cell that transmits an impulse) responsible for inhibiting muscle contractions. Disabling this inhibitory neurotransmitter results in relentless muscle spasms.


Tetanus symptoms usually begin around the face and eyes. Dogs lose their ability to blink accompanied by changes in facial features. This classic facial appearance (the one that prompted me to respond to the FB post) is referred to as risus sardonicus.

With time, symptoms become more generalized throughout the body ultimately resulting in a spastic paralysis- the dog is unable to move at all because of muscle rigidity. Without appropriate treatment, death occurs due to paralysis of the muscles responsible for breathing.

To see a dog with tetanic symptoms, have a look at this video. Not to worry, this video has a happy ending.


There is no simple test for diagnosing tetanus. Rather, the diagnosis is made based on symptoms and the history of a wound that allowed the clostridial organism to gain entry into the bloodstream.

Treatment and prognosis

Clostridium tetani is an anaerobic bacterial organism, meaning that it thrives in environments devoid of oxygen. A wound festering beneath the skin surface is an ideal incubator. For this reason, it is important to treat the wound (if one is found) where the bacteria gained entry. This involves debridement- opening the wound and removing as much infected tissue as possible.

Appropriate antibiotic therapy is imperative. Penicillin-related drugs work well against the clostridial organism and, at least initially, they are typically administered intravenously. With improvement, oral antibiotics are appropriate. (Baytril, the antibiotic the FB dog was being treated with, is ineffective against Clostridium tetani.)

Additional treatment is dictated by the severity of symptoms. Muscle relaxants are commonly administered along with medication to reduce anxiety. If the dog is unable to eat because of “lock jaw”, nutrition is provided by way of a feeding tube. And if the dog is unable to move, intensive nursing care is required.

Dogs with tetanus are usually super-sensitive to stimuli, and sights and sounds can intensify muscle contractions. For this reason, these dogs are often sedated and kept in a dark quiet room during the recovery period. Long-term treatment- up to a month or more- is often required.

The prognosis for tetanus is good, assuming the dog receives early intervention and aggressive treatment. As with most diseases, the earlier the diagnosis is made and treatment started, the better the prognosis.


Dogs are not routinely vaccinated against tetanus because they are so much less susceptible to this disease than are other species such as horses, livestock and people. This being said, it does make sense to thoroughly clean even minor wounds, particularly those on the feet.

How the story ends

So, how did things turn out for the dog I “met” on FB? I sure wish I knew. Silly me, I failed to note the woman’s name and, because we are not FB “friends”, I am at a loss as to how to find her again. I suspect things turned out well, and I’m glad my FB conversation prompted me to teach you about tetanus!

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at http://www.speakingforspot.com

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13 Comments on “A Primer on Canine Tetanus

  1. In my early days as an AHT (what we were called before we became LVTs!), the practice I worked at treated a 4 month old pup for tetanus. I remember being the one to drive to the human hospital for the Tetanus Antitoxin to give to the dog, and the weeks of supportive and nursing care one of my fellow AHTs provided for the dog. The experience was written up in VM-SAC, Aug.1983. I had to go dig the article out to get the timing. Interesting case with a positive resolution! If there was ever an interesting case we saw in whatever practice I worked in, we’d always say, “Better write it up in VM-SAC!” and this one we did!

  2. Hi KT,

    Thanks for your kind feedback. The only way tetanus could be transmitted by a dog bite is if the bite created a wound that was then dirt contaminated.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy

  3. Wow! Had never thought about or imagined tetanus in dogs. Thank you. And so glad you were able to help the FB person and her dog.

  4. Thanks for a very useful article!!! I have been wondering and meaning to educate myself on this, but keep forgetting and/or running out of time, then… THIS!!! 🙂

    Curious… is there any possibility of transmitting tetanus via bite wound? Doesn’t seem likely given the soil link.

  5. I stopped offering advice on Facebook, you were lucky and got a good response.
    I am not saying that does not happen, but it is quite rare.

    The many posts I see in Facebook where the dog is clearly suffering and people do not get the dog to the vet but ask the Facebook experts!
    Or I am being tagged in posts and asked for help, so I say my bit, but other people, not even medically trained know it all better – god Google told them so…
    The best part are the ones who private message you and try to suck out all the information you have, just to walk away then and do their own thing.

    I feel for the dogs, so I walk straight into that trap now and then and I believe everybody in our profession does.

    Good on you to put the person on the right path and I hope the dog made a full recovery!

    Keep up the good work 🙂

  6. I adopted a dog that had been treated for tetanus. She recovered but always had the “shakes”. Best dog ever.

  7. Many years ago one of my dogs contracted tetanus. He was kicked by a horse, knocked down, and had a cut/scrape on his face. I called my vet, who said he would “be fine” and he didn’t need to see the dog. Some days later, the dog wasn’t able to drink — he would lap water but couldn’t get it in his mouth — and was walking/laying stiffly. I called a second vet who diagnosed tetanus over the phone. While I was on my way to her clinic, she called university vet hospital. The doctor there said to pump the dog full of tetanus antitoxoid, enough for several horses, then to have me drive the dog to university clinic.

    The university teaching vet hospital had never seen a tetanus dog before. My dog was there several weeks, and was photographed/videoed during his recovery time and, as far as I know, is still used as a teaching demo for vet students.

    The dog recovered well and was eventually back to normal, although for the first few weeks after he came home, he would snap his jaws and throw his head around while sleeping, causing some distress as the dog slept with me. Once he woke up, this would stop.

    I am grateful the second vet, a country vet and horse owner, recognized tetanus symptoms by my description. She said she had seen it before in another animal treated by her clinic.

  8. Hi Marion. Sorry you had some first hand experience, but very glad that all turned out well for Storm, and hopefully you as well.

  9. That video was painful to watch 🙁
    Interesting article: thanks for saving dog’s lives <3

  10. My dog was diagnosed, after many visits to the vet and then a referral to the OakvilleMississauga Emergency vet clinic and an MRI, with tetanus. She was sick for nearly a week before the diagnosis. Everything you describe happened to her but we never found an entry wound. She also was always able to walk which helped her. She was at the clinic for nearly 2 weeks and then home (May2) with me for 24 hr a day care. I have a very empty bank account but so happy and very emotional that I have my girl with me today!! This happened after I myself had been in the hospital for a week where I had an MRI also. I wonder if I had been around Storm if I would have noticed a small wound on her. My husband and boys were too overworked, with me being sick, to maybe notice that Storm had something happen to her. My vets have never seen a tetanus case and at the emerg hosptial the vet supervising Storm called in another vet to confirm what she thought because she had not seen more then 5 cases in her practice at he vet hospital. I now know what to look for because I know it can happen. I wonder if we are seeing it more often.

  11. Nancy, you should be able to track down the woman with whom you had a FB chat about the possibility that her dog has Tetanus. Go to your FB home page (that’s the page youget to when you click on your name) from there, click on activities. This will open to show a list of all your recent activities. Scroll thru the list, you should be able to discover your post/ chat with her. Click & presto. Hope this helps.

  12. Dear Nancy… thank you so very much for this information. Our ‘kids’ live next to a forest & spend much time clambering over rough ground… nicks & cuts, tho’ not common, do happen! We imagine ourselves experienced dog owners, but I knew nothing about tetanus in dogs & how it manifests. Again, thank you for sharing this with us. Cheers, Lizzie, Tim & Pack.

  13. Thank you! Tetanus may be rare but forewarned is forearmed. I’m grateful for the information. Who knows when it may help?