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Tetanus in dogs is rare, but it can be difficult to diagnose because there is no test for the toxin that causes tetanus. Instead, the diagnosis relies on the symptoms that the dog displays as well as the presence of a wound that could be responsible for allowing bacteria into the body. If there is a change in the dog's behavior in line with other symptoms of a tetanus infection, searching for and finding an infected wound can be one of the telltale signs.
There are four different classifications for severity of tetanus in dogs and the stage of development that the infection is in. A case can often progress from the first stage to the fourth, and the higher the number, the lower the chances of survival. Regardless of the severity when treatment is received, the road to recovery is often long and can take weeks if not months.
The first signs of tetanus in dogs is an inability to blink. Instead of blinking, the dog will use his or her third eyelid to keep the eyes moist and clear. This eyelid is typically only seen when the dog is asleep and the outer eyelids are slightly open. Pupils often become constricted, making the dog extremely sensitive to light. Typically, these are the first symptoms and are usually seen about two weeks after the dog sustains the wound.
In the next week after symptoms begin to display themselves, the dog can become irritable and restless. The eyes may take on a sunken, tired look, and the dog's muscles can begin to become rigid; lockjaw is one of the most common symptoms, leaving the dog unable to open his or her mouth. Once the tetanus progresses to the second level, the dog will begin to display the same muscle rigidity throughout the entire body. He or she may still be able to walk, but will seem stiff and ungainly. Drooling may begin as a side effect of difficulty swallowing and controlling other involuntary processes.
These signs of tetanus in dogs can be joined by muscle spasms, and once the dog loses its ability to walk, it is considered to have entered into the next level of severity. Spasms can turn into seizures, and at this stage the dog can have difficulty breathing because it has lost control over many internal processes. The muscle spasms and rigidity can make hospitalization and life support necessary for survival.
Even with veterinary support, tetanus in dogs can cause respiratory arrest. The heart rate can be extremely fast or extremely slow; the bacteria responsible for tetanus infect the central nervous system and voluntary and involuntary muscle movements. This usually begins around or near the location of the wound, but by the time the dog is in, the final stages have spread throughout the body.