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Pit Bull Puppy Not Moving Right

March 25, 2012
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This picture shows the american pit bull terrier puppy looking right at the camera, eyes squinting, and his forehead all crinkled in a "worried" look typical of tetanus patients.

APBT Puppy with tetanus forehead wrinkles

American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) Puppy Suddenly Not Acting Right

When I say suddenly, I mean suddenly.  This puppy saw Doc Truli the day before for a health certificate.  He looked perfect.  His two chunky, silver-grey sisters looked perfect, too.  Now, he sat on the examination table and wobbled.  He sat where we placed him and tried to stand up but instead, he kept rocking forward and back onto his haunches.  When he tried harder, he fell over and had to throw out a paw to catch himself.  If we stood him up, he could not take a step.  He just stood there, frozen.

“I swear nothing happened to him,” said his human,”he just woke up this morning all messed up.”

The puppy had no fever.  His eyes squinted almost shut, like light bothered him.  They were so small, a penlight did not reveal whether he had normal pupillary light responses.

Doc Truli tried to work out what could possibly be wrong with him.  Poisoning?  No, he would be lethargic and depressed.  Trauma?  No, he would be painful somewhere.  This puppy looked like his brain wasn’t working right.  In a day.

And he ate.  He ate everything we gave him.  Usually, when a puppy feels sick, he will not eat.  This guy ate fine, except for a little light gagging.

Then Doc focussed on his forehead.  As you know, ABPT puppies and adults sometimes, have little worry lines on their foreheads.  This guy had ridiculous worry lines.  And his ears looked pulled back for no reason.  Uh-oh.  Now Doc Truli knew what was wrong.

Tetanus in a 10-week Old Puppy

Tetanus in a dog causes a characteristic, pathognmonic (path-og-n-mon-ick) ears pulled back worried look on a dog’s face.  This is an awful diagnosis to have to make because tetanus is often deadly.

Another word for tetanus is “lockjaw.”  You may have heard this when you go get your tetanus shot.  Every 5 years (in the United States) the physicians recommend we get a tetanus booster shot to prevent infection.  If you get a bite wound, or a nail gun injury, or some other deep puncture wound, the doctors give you a tetanus booster.

Tetanus lives everywhere in the soil.  It dies when it is exposed to sunlight and air.  Therefore, the soil and tetanus must be injected right into the body in order for you to become infected.  A deep sharp wound will do it.  Once the tetanus is inside, it causes the muscles to stop working.  The name lock-jaw comes from the fact that the jaw muscles lock up and you starve to death.  Muscle relaxants and painkillers are important parts of the treatment.  Also since the invention of antibiotics, sometimes antibiotics can stop it.

How did a tiny puppy get tetanus?  Most likely, through infection of the hole left when a baby tooth falls out.  This is an unusual problem, but well-documented in the veterinary literature.  Unfortunately, since the jaw and esophageal muscles become infected, many of the puppies and dogs cannot eat.  Parenteral (Intravenous) nutrition is tricky and expensive.  It must be given in an intensive care hospital.  In the case of tetanus, several weeks in the ICU can cost a family $20,000-$30,000.  This is almost never financially possible.

How We Treated an APBT Puppy With Tetanus

We stared him on antibiotics to try and fight the tetanus and we gave mom instructions for how to feed him so he would not gag the food or breath into his lungs by accident.  We instructed her to keep him in a cool, dark area with no excitement.  The more you excite a tetanus dog, the more they lock up and cannot move.  It is painful to have those muscle spasms and exhausting. We also hoped and prayed he did not have too much in his system.  Maybe he would fight it off.

4 weeks later, mom called and said he made it!  He was wobbly and still could not walk right.  He was half the size of his sisters because he had trouble eating for weeks and they sprouted ahead of him. He never progressed to full paralysis and he was doing fine!

“What did you name him?” asked Doc Truli.


Of course…

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