"In A Blink Of An Eye"
(Dealing with Tetanus in a dog)

by Sandra Ramsey

On Thursday January 16, I noticed that my dog Bailey, a nearly 2-year-old beautiful Labrador Retriever seemed to have an eye problem. Her right eye was tearing just a bit, and both eyes appeared a little larger than normal. The next day there wasn’t any change. My husband, being a dog lover as well, called while I was out, and made an appointment for me to take her to the Vet on Saturday.

With my regular Vet being on vacation, I had to see another Vet in the practice. I felt comfortable with that. I have been going to this clinic for years, and have always had a good experience.

The Vet examined Bailey’s eyes, including doing a cornea stain to rule out a scratch. We were sent home with drops for what he thought was either the beginnings of an infection or slight trauma due to rough play with my other Labrador. He said to return if it hadn’t cleared up in a few days.

By Monday her eyes looked worse. She had taken on a “bug eyed” look. The whites of her eyes were showing all the way around in both eyes. Bailey’s breeder, who since has become a friend, recommended I bypass the regular Vet, and go to an Ophthalmologist instead. I was given his earliest appointment. Wednesday morning at 8:00 AM. That is when everything changed.

The Ophthalmologist was a terrific guy. He gave Bailey a very thorough exam, and listened intently to her history, and what had gone on in the days leading up to our visit with him.

While I was ecstatic to hear that my dog was not going blind, I was shocked when he told me he believed she had Tetanus. I had been so focused on Bailey’s eyes that I hadn’t really noticed the other symptoms he pointed out to me. Her ears were a bit laid back on her head, and her face had a tight appearance. He had seen it twice in his 30 years of practice, and said the symptoms were classic. I was throwing questions at him left and right. Can you cure this? Will she die? What now?

At this point, the Vet made several phone calls to colleagues. No one in my general area had even seen it, let alone treated it. I made a phone call to Bailey’s breeder. She told me to get to UC Davis quickly. Luckily for Bailey, we live only about 1-½ hours from UC Davis.

I packed up my beautiful dog in her crate, called my husband to pick up the kids at school that afternoon, and with tears streaming down my face headed for UC Davis’ Neurology department. We were greeted by a couple of Vet Students and a Vet that were thrilled we were there. Tetanus is so uncommon in dogs that they were looking forward to the learning experience. I on the other hand felt dread that my dog had something so rare.

Bailey was given a complete Neuro exam. Every inch of her body was gone over looking for some kind of wound. We found nothing. The Vet explained that the tiniest puncture wound could have let in the bacteria, and had long since healed. Blood work, chest x-rays, and an abdominal ultrasound were done to rule out a foreign body or internal abscess of some kind.

It was explained to me that at this point Bailey’s symptoms were fairly mild. However, I should understand that there was a high likelihood they would worsen. The symptoms to watch for would include seizure, trouble swallowing, trouble breathing, and stiffening of her limbs. These symptoms could occur, if more of the neuro toxin produced by the tetanus bacteria attached itself to her nerves. I should keep her quiet as possible and not expose her to loud noise or bright lights, as this could induce a seizure. Bailey was sent home with Metradiazole, the Vets card to call at anytime, an appointment for a week away, and a very scared owner!

I returned home, and found that my husband had dimmed all of the lights in the house. He had made up Bailey’s bed in the laundry room, as this would be where she would be spending a lot of time. With two children and another Labrador, Bailey needed a “quiet” room of her own to go to when the house became too active. We explained to the kids what was wrong with her. My daughter spent part of that night with her face buried in Bailey’s fur crying. When my son asked me if she would die, I told him we would do whatever we had to do to make sure that didn’t happen.

As the week progressed Bailey’s symptoms didn’t change much. The new symptom I recognized, was that her third eyelid was visible, and when she went out to potty, she was squinting terribly from the light. She was sleeping a lot, for which I was grateful. Bailey is an active young dog, and I had been concerned about how I was going to keep her confined and quiet. She gladly took her pill twice a day, as long as it included a scoop of cream cheese!

We returned to UC Davis the following Thursday for a re-check visit. Her Veterinarian was very pleased with what she saw. Bailey hadn’t gotten worse as she had expected. While we weren’t out of the woods yet, this was a very good sign. Bailey was to continue on the antibiotics for two more weeks. We needed to keep her quiet and confined as much as possible during that time.

The quiet and confined part became a little more difficult! She was feeling good, and it appeared in the typical Labrador fashion….Butt-tucking! While it scared me, I must admit it made me happy to see my dog that was so sick, butt-tucking through the house. Her fun only lasted a few minutes, and then it was back to her quiet spot on the couch.

Bailey has finished her three-week course of antibiotics. We will return to UC Davis in a couple of weeks for a follow-up visit, but at this time Bailey is doing very well. Her face still has a bit of a tight appearance, and her eyes aren’t quite back to normal. It could take some time for her facial features to return to normal. I don’t care what she looks like, as long as she is here.

I hope our journey with this rare disease is near its end. Only time will tell. Bailey has had many friends sending good thoughts and prayers for her recovery. I will be forever grateful for that. We have been very fortunate that her case appears to have been mild and localized to her face. From what I understand, this isn’t always the case.

We will never know where this came from. Either she had a wound that was too small to be seen, or I missed it. Tetanus is something that lives in the dirt all around us. People are vaccinated for it, as well as horses. At this time dogs are not vaccinated for tetanus. Dogs are typically more resistant to it. However, since Bailey’s diagnosis, I have talked with two other people whose dogs had tetanus. Both of those dogs are alive and well today.

Through this, I have learned that I know my dog very well. I felt something wasn’t right from the beginning. I will never hesitate to get a second or even third opinion if need be. Sometimes with dogs, all we have to go on is our “gut”…. listen to it.

Some additional links on tetanus in dogs:





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