You have probably heard of tetanus, and may remember getting a tetanus shot every 10 years or so, but did you know that dogs and cats can contract tetanus too?
Rest assured it is rare for dogs, and even more so for cats, to contract it because they are far more resistant than humans... but it can happen.
Tetanus is caused by a toxin secreting bacterium, found in soils, that is typically transmitted through small puncture wounds. The toxins cause a loss of muscle movement, spams, and/or rigidity (which is why tetanus is often referred to as “lockjaw”). In severe cases, it can cause respiratory issues and paralysis.
First, the leg closest to the injury develops tense muscles and does not bend as it should. As the toxin spreads, this becomes widespread, with the dog or cat standing in a stiff-legged, sawhorse stance. Even small noises can trigger painful muscle contractions. Ultimately, death can occur because of paralysis of the respiratory muscles.
As things progress, pets with tetanus develop an eerie human like grin caused by muscle contractions pulling back the lips, with the forehead deeply wrinkled and ears drawn back. With the jaw locked this way, swallowing and eating are impossible. In the absence of treatment, life threatening dehydration quickly follows.
Some cases of tetanus in dogs and cats are mild, whereas others become severe. Diagnosis can be difficult because blood tests tend not to be definitive. The bacterium does not live long when exposed to air at a wound’s surface, and tetanus can present like many other conditions. Therefore, if you notice any of the symptoms noted above, you should consult your veterinarian immediately.
In the early stages of tetanus, intravenous antibiotics and exposure of damaged tissue to the air (tetanus hates oxygen) can stop spores from germinating to produce their deadly toxins. In more severe cases, tetanus antitoxins (which some animals are allergic to) are administered while secluding the pet in a quiet, dark environment to reduce the stimuli that trigger convulsions. Unfortunately, toxins already bound to nerves cannot be destroyed and must run their course.
Prompt cleaning of all wounds with dilute hydrogen peroxide kills the spores that cause tetanus and so helps to prevent it.