Hank Investigates: Tetanus in Dogs

(WHDH) — Happy, playful, and spunky.

That is how Heather and Phil Short are used to seeing their yellow Lab Murray.

“He is a part of the family,” Phil Short said.

So, when Murray hurt his paw last summer, they brought him to the vet.

“He had a broken nail. So, they gave him some pain medication and some antibiotic,” Heather said.

But days later, Murray didn’t want to play, swim or eat.

“He was keeping his jaw clenched. And anybody who has a Lab knows that you can usually get anything in their mouth when it involves food,” Heather Short said.

Then Murray’s entire body started to get stiff.

“That started to scare us,” Phil said.

They raced Murray to the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University in Grafton, where they got an alarming diagnosis: Murray had tetanus. The bacteria had entered his body through that broken toenail.

“We were extremely surprised and extremely worried,” Heather said.

Dr. Ian DeStefano, an emergency medicine and critical care veterinarian at Foster Hospital treated Murray. He says tetanus in dogs is so rare; it was the first case he’d ever seen.

“I was shocked,” Dr. DeStefano said.

The bacteria that cause tetanus live in soil and dirt and produce a toxin that attacks the nervous system.

It’s terribly dangerous, that’s why people get vaccinated against it, But there’s no vaccination for dogs.

“The most severely affected dogs have breathing problems. They develop paralysis essentially of the respiratory muscles,” Dr. DeStefano said.

Murray was immediately put on a ventilator, and his infected toe was removed.

“That was scary,” Heather said.

Even more concerning, vets at the Foster Hospital tell us Murray wasn’t the only dog they treated for tetanus in the last year.

They saw the usually rare illness in a golden retriever from Ayer and another dog from New Hampshire.

So far, they don’t see how the cases are related.

“It’s certainly odd that we’ve seen a handful of cases in such a short period of time,” Dr. DeStefano said. “Could there be something that, you know, some commonality that, you know, we don’t know about? Maybe? My best guess is no.”

All the dogs survived.

And Murray is now back to being a spunky Lab. But the Shorts worry other dogs might not be as lucky.

“There are no words to explain how thankful we are,” Heather said.

If your pet gets a cut, keep it clean to prevent tetanus. Watch for locked jaw and body stiffness. If that happens, get to the vet immediately.

For more information on tetanus in dogs click here.

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