Rare in cats, tetanus is triggered by the bacteria Clostridium tetani, often found in low-oxygen environments such as soil. These are anaerobic bacteria -- meaning they grow without oxygen -- that produce a toxin that affects nerve signals. A puncture wound contaminated with dirt provides an ideal environment for tetanus to develop and spread, as the bacteria gain entrance into the wound and release their toxin to spread throughout the body. The toxin binds to the body's nerve cells, resulting in limb stiffness and muscle spasms and other symptoms of tetanus.
Clostridium tetani thrive on dead tissue, and deep puncture wounds are ideal for its reproduction. As the bacteria finds their home in the wound's dead tissue, their cells die and fragment, releasing the toxin into the cat's system. Symptoms first present as stiffness at the wound site, as well as in the jaw and neck muscles and the hind legs. Usually the stiffness becomes more pronounced throughout the body within a day, followed by spasms and sensitivity to touch that normally wouldn't cause discomfort. If the toxin remains isolated at the wound, the symptoms may disappear; however, if the toxin progresses to the nervous system, it can cause generalized tetanus.
Generalized Tetanus Symptoms
Symptoms of generalized tetanus include:
- Pain during urination
- Hard, stiff tail
- Erect, stiff ears
- Increasingly stiff body muscles
- Wrinkled forehead
- Excessive drooling
- A "grinning" appearance
- Difficulty eating, breathing and opening the mouth
- Bodywide muscle spasms
A cat with tetanus may not be able to blink and may have to rely on her third eyelid to moisten her eye. As well, she may become sensitive to light and sound, such that a clap of the hand will create a spasm or seizure.
Diagnosis and Treatment
There's no blood test that tells the vet a cat has tetanus, though blood tests and urinalysis will be part of the vet's diagnostic process to help confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions. The vet will consider the appearance of symptoms and any wound history information for diagnosis. Tissue and fluid samples may be cultured and sent for confirmation.
Treatment depends on the progression of the disease. Muscle relaxers and sedatives can help with spasms and seizures; basic antibiotics, such as penicillin, will help with the infection. If the cat's tetanus is advanced, she'll likely require hospitalization, potentially with a feeding or breathing tube, and intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration.
Home care of a cat recovering from a serious bout of tetanus requires diligence. She'll need a quiet, comfortable spot away from any stimulants that may aggravate her condition. Adjust her resting position regularly so she doesn't develop sores. She may need pain medication to keep her comfortable. Regular veterinary checkups are necessary throughout the recovery process to monitor her progress. Generally, the more severe the infection the smaller the chance of complete recovery.