Highlighted Case – Tetanus in a Dog: Emergency Treatment
by Kate McDuffee, DVM
Roxie is a 4 month old terrier mix who was adopted from a local shelter 1 month previously. She had been doing well in her new home, until her owners came back after being away from the house for a few hours, and noticed Roxie was having trouble walking. By the time they got her to Animal Emergency, her rear legs were extremely stiff, and she was holding them straight out behind her. There were no signs of trauma, and no where along her back that seemed painful. Her clinical signs pointed toward tetanus, which is a rare problem in dogs (much more common in horses and humans). Because these cases often require 24 hour care, and some need to be placed on ventilators, Roxie was transferred to the University of Georgia Veterinary Teaching Hospital (UGAVTH), where the diagnosis of tetanus was confirmed.
Tetanus is caused by a bacterium, Clostridium tetani, which produces a toxin that affects the nerves that tell the muscles to relax. The bacteria enters the body through a wound, which can be anything from a surgical incision to a puncture (the classic “rusty nail”) or even from teething. There can be either localized disease, where just one limb is involved, or generalized disease, which can affect all muscles, including the diaphragm and chest muscles, to the point where they need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe. In Roxie’s case, it affected her rear legs, and spread forward to her front legs, but did not impair her breathing.
After spending several days at UGAVTH, Roxie is now home, with her owners doing daily physical therapy exercises to get her range of motion back. She is showing steady improvement, but it will likely be weeks before she has normal mobility again. Because this is so rare in dogs, we do not routinely vaccinate against it (like is done with horses and people), and the best prevention is to keep wounds clean, and seek veterinary advice at the first sign of trouble.