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General Information

Tetanus is a disease caused by bacteria (Clostridium tetani) that produce a poison that is very damaging to the nervous system. These organisms form spores that are very resistant to conditions that would destroy most types of bacteria. These spores are found throughout nature in soil and in human and animal waste.

Tetanus organisms usually enter the body through puncture wounds and cause signs of disease 4-20 days after entering the body.

The main signs of tetanus are stiffness of the limbs and difficult breathing. In fatal infections, paralysis of the breathing muscles is the usual cause of death.

Important Points in Treatment

1. Due to the seriousness of tetanus, hospitalization is usually necessary. Various tests are needed to diagnose the disorder and monitor the response to treatment.

2. Recovery may take several weeks. Any improvements come very slowly.

3. Give all medication as directed. Call the doctor if you cannot give the medication.

4. Diet: Follow the instructions checked.

____Feed the normal diet.

____A special diet is required. Feed as follows:


5. Exercise: Provide exercise as follows:


6. Special instructions:


Notify the Doctor if Any of the Following Occur:

* Your pet seems to be in pain.

* Your pet has trouble breathing.

* Your pet is reluctant or unable to eat or drink.

* Your pet's general health worsens.

Question and Answer

What is tetanus?

Tetanus is a disease caused by the effect of a nervous system poison (neurotropic toxin) on the central nervous system. The nervous system poison is produced by the bacterium, Clostridium tetani. The bacterium is found in soil and as part of the normal bacteria of the intestinal tract of mammals. The tetanus bacterium lives and grows without oxygen (that is, it is an anaerobic bacterium). It produces a potent toxin or poison (tetanus toxin). Tetanus is found worldwide, especially in the tropics. Tetanus occurs occasionally in dogs. It is rare in cats.

What causes tetanus?

Tetanus is caused by a nervous system poison (tetanus toxin) released by Clostridium tetani. The bacteria invade the body through a skin wound. Tetanus historically is associated with puncture wounds because the small, narrow entrance blocks oxygen and makes the environment more desirable for Clostridium. The tetanus bacteria prefer contaminated wounds, especially those containing dead tissue. Surgical wounds, lacerations, burns, frostbite, open fractures, or abrasions can become infected with Clostridium tetani. Untreated wounds provide easy access for infection. Outdoor pets are more at risk for developing tetanus than are indoor pets.

Vaccinating dogs and cats with tetanus toxoid can prevent tetanus. Good management to prevent skin wounds by providing clean, safe environments decreases the likelihood of injury and resultant tetanus. Early and thorough wound cleaning, especially in tetanus-prone wounds, can prevent infection. Any deep, contaminated wound should be treated with antibiotics.

What are the signs of tetanus?

Signs of tetanus appear a few days to a few months after the bacteria enter a wound. The wound may be healed by the time the signs of tetanus appear. Localized signs are mild rigidity of muscles near the wound. The animal will be stiff with a stilted gait. Mild weakness or incoordination may be present. The signs may disappear, reflecting an immune response to the tetanus toxin, or the disease may worsen and become generalized. If this occurs, the animal's tail will stretch out and there will be progressive tightening of the muscles to the point of a "sawhorse" appearance. Painful convulsions occur and the animal may have difficulty breathing. The eyelids retract and the forehead becomes wrinkled. The ears become erect and the animal has a grinning appearance. The animal will have difficulty opening its jaw (lockjaw). Fever, painful urination, and constipation can occur. Sudden movement, noise, or touch can stimulate muscle spasms. Death occurs during spasm of the throat and breathing muscles because of a lack of oxygen.

How is tetanus diagnosed?

Tetanus is diagnosed by history, physical examination, and laboratory analysis. Lead and strychnine poisoning can mimic tetanus and must be considered as possible causes of the clinical signs. Complete blood counts (CBCs) and blood chemistries may indicate abnormalities as a result of muscle damage during the later stages of the disease. The blood serum may be analyzed for the antitetanus antibody, but it is often undetectable. The wound is cultured but is usually unsuccessful in yielding Clostridium tetani. A spinal tap may be done to obtain cerebrospinal fluid for analysis of other bacteria that may cause similar signs.

How is tetanus treated?

Good supportive care and constant nursing care are important in the treatment of tetanus. The animal is hospitalized for a prolonged period of 3 to 4 weeks. The airway and breathing is maintained and it may be necessary to insert a breathing tube (endotracheal tube). Tracheostomy (emergency surgical incision into the windpipe [trachea] to create an airway) may be needed. The pet is kept in a darkened, quiet area on soft bedding and should not be disturbed. Wounds are cleaned and dead tissue is removed surgically. Wounds may be irrigated with salt solutions. They should be kept open to the air and drained of any secretions. A feeding tube is inserted and the animal is fed gruel and water through the tube. Fluids are administered intravenously (through a vein) to help remove toxic products that occur because of muscle spasms. Medications are administered to sedate and calm the animal. Tetanus antitoxin is given. Penicillin is administered but antibiotics have no effect in later stages of the disease. The vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate) are monitored closely and the animal moved cautiously to prevent skin breakdown or ulceration.

What is the prognosis for animals with tetanus?

The prognosis (outcome) for animals with tetanus is guarded. Prognosis depends on a number of factors. The amount of tetanus toxin bound to the nerves influences the prognosis; the more toxin bound to the nerves, the poorer the prognosis. The prognosis improves with surgical removal of damaged tissue and medical treatment. However, the course of recovery is slow and requires physical rehabilitation for the animal to regain full use of its limbs. Untreated tetanus usually is fatal.

The information on this page was obtained from the site www.vetmedcenter.com