Canine Tetanus: a Facial Expression to Remember

Here’s a facial expression you should commit to memory.  A vet may only see it a few times during their career, and a pet owner only once if unlucky. No, it’s not Rabies or ferocious aggression; it’s the look of Tetanus.  Opposite to the paralytic effect of it’s sister toxin, Botox, tetanus toxin is yet to find it’s place in cosmetic medicine.

tetanus facial expression

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Clostridium Tetanii, the bacteria that causes tetanus, is ubiquitous and lives in soil everywhere.  Humans and horses are highly sensitive to it’s toxic effects, frequently needing a tetanus booster after a dirty cut or rusty nail incident, whereas dogs and cats have evolved to cope with the puncture wounds of fighting and are usually resistant to the disease.

After infecting a wound the bacteria multiplies and pumps it’s toxin into circulation. All around the body, it binds and stimulates receptors where nerves meet muscle, resulting in continuous muscle contraction.

The early effects on facial muscles result in the classic demonic grin: raising of the lips and eyelids, with pinching of the brow and lifting the ears. Mia, the patient pictured here, was the friendliest of dogs who just wanted to play and couldn’t control her facial expression, nor understand the way it changed the response of humans she encountered during her hospital stay. Pet owners visiting dogs in adjacent cages, fearful their companion could end up with the look of a scary clown, were very pleased to hear tetanus is not a contagious disease.

If left untreated the disease progresses, resulting in stiffness of the neck and limbs and ultimately inability to walk, eat or even breathe. Human patients struck down by full-blown tetanus may occupy an ICU bed for 6 months; catheterised, cannulated, tube-fed, and on respirator, at huge cost to the public, family and the patient.

Pet owners can rarely afford such intensive care and the only good outcomes of tetanus in the veterinary setting are in animals treated early and aggressively. Fortunately, Mia was saved with prompt high-dose penicillin and antitoxin. Although it will take a while for her facial expression to return to normal. Until then she’ll remain confused as to why everyone at the beach, who used to be so friendly, now just reel in fear.

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Botulinum toxin, or Botox as we now know it, is produced by a cousin of the tetanus bacteria, Clostridium Botulinum, and bonds to the same receptors but results in flaccid paralysis: exactly what we desire for our furrowed brows and crows feet.  It’s about time we developed a cosmetic product using tetanus toxin. We just need to make the maniacal-happy-look a little more fashionable.

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8 Responses to “Canine Tetanus: a Facial Expression to Remember”

  1. Lesa Weatherley says:

    Thanks Matt, this answered my facebook ? about cats…x

  2. jojo says:

    I treated one and it looked like that, with a wagging tail 😀
    Luckily that one got better, after 3 weeks.

  3. noel says:

    thanks dr Mat, lease give me permission to use your image for my education.

  4. matt says:

    go for it. guide your pupils to my site and i’ll be even happier.
    cheers
    m

  5. SUE says:

    MY LAB LOOKS ALMOST AS BAD AS THAT POOR BABY,JUST HIS EARS AND BROW ARE SO TIGHT. WE DID CATCH IT VERY EARLY (HE LOST A TOENAIL AND WE SUSPECT THATS WHERE HIS TROUBLE BEGAN. ABOUT 10 DAYS AFTER HE LOST IT THE SYMTOMS DEVELOPED. IS THERE ANYTHING WE CAN DO TO MAKE HIM MORE COMFY AND HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR US TO SEE SOME IMPROVEMENT I N HIS SYMPTOMS. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME AND YOUR GREAT WEBSITE. I COULDNT BELIEVE I COULD EVEN FIND ANYTHING ON THIS SUBJECT, AGAIN THANK YOU

  6. Marc says:

    Hi there-
    I have a black lab who developed sunken eyes and exposed, slow-to-retract third eyelids in both eyes almost overnight. I am worried that this is the first symptom of tetanus, but I have also read something about ‘Horner’s syndrome’. She was treated for a severe yeast infection in one ear several weeks ago. Veterinarians I’ve spoken to on the phone don’t have much advice for me. If it is tetanus, is it safe to wait to she if she develops the above facial expression before bringing her in for testing? I’ve only found one speciality vet in my area who can test for tetanus, and they are quite expensive…..
    Thank you for any advice!

  7. admin says:

    it is very rare to see chronic tetanus, that just affects the third eyelids.

    if your dog genuinely has bilateral horners syndrome, you should speak to a vet. More often third eyelids will become chronically exposed in dogs that have sunken eyes due to loss of retrobulbar fat. this is not horners. you will be able to find plenty of online info on the the other pupillary abnormalities that will enable you to identify horners syndrome if you cant get to a vet.

    good luck

  8. Sue Schouten says:

    Our much loved dog, Mate, died a week ago whilst being treated for tetanus. We think the strain of what he had been through whilst lost for 5 days and losing his best friend was too much.Our vet sees one case a month.

    Never want to see anything like it again. He didn’t have a really scary face but even his tail was stiff as a board. So distressing.

    Going to see about tetanus vaccinations for our pup.

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