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What are Tetanus?

There are two variations of tetanus, localized and generalized. Because of their high resistance to the toxin released by the Clostridium tetani, cats are more likely to develop localized tetanus rather than generalized. Localized tetanus causes muscle spasms and stiffness in the muscle tissues near the puncture wound. Generalized tetanus, which is much more common in other animals than in cats, causes muscle contractions of the face, jaw, neck, hind legs, and other areas.

Although tetanus is extremely rare in cats because they have been found to be very resistant to the toxin released by the bacteria, isolated cases have been reported. If your cat has sustained a puncture wound, rather than trying to clean and treat the wound yourself, it is best to contact your veterinarian or take your cat to an emergency veterinary hospital.

Tetanus toxemia, commonly called tetanus or lockjaw, is a disease that is caused by toxic bacteria called Clostridium tetani. This bacteria is usually found in soil and sometimes within the intestinal tract of animals. Clostridium tetani causes tetanus toxemia when an animal or human suffers a deep penetrating wound from a sharp implement that has soil or feces on it that contains this bacteria. Especially when the wound is not immediately and thoroughly cleaned out, the bacteria works its way into the dead tissue of the wound. As the bacterial spores grow and develop, a toxin forms inside the spores. During an incubation period of approximately ten to fourteen days, the bacterial spores continually reproduce. As these spores die, they release a toxin, or poison, into the surrounding tissue. This toxin blocks the nerve signals that inhibit muscle tissue from flexing, which causes the affected muscle tissue to spasm and become tense and rigid. 

Symptoms of Tetanus in Cats

Tetanus is quite rare in cats, and in the isolated feline cases that do occur, localized tetanus is much more common. This localized tetanus tends to manifest in the following symptoms, which occur specifically in the muscles around the puncture wound:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle stiffness and rigidity

Left untreated, tetanus in a cat can at times spread through the neural pathways to the spinal cord, becoming generalized tetanus. In these rare cases, generalized tetanus will present the following symptoms:

  • Mouth that remains partially open with lips drawn back because of the “locked jaw.”
  • Muscle spasms throughout the body, especially in the face, jaw, and neck
  • Exaggerated and often violent muscular reflexes when startled or touched
  • Difficulty bending joints
  • Difficulty walking, backing up, and turning 
  • Erect ears
  • Stiff and erect tail
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate

Causes of Tetanus in Cats

The most common cause of tetanus is a deep puncture wound caused by a dirty object that is infected with the Clostridium tetani bacteria. When the deep puncture wound is not quickly and medically cleaned and treated by a veterinarian, the bacteria can infect the dead tissue and release the toxin that causes tetanus toxemia, or lockjaw. It should also be noted that this bacteria is more common in the soil of warmer climates.

Diagnosis of Tetanus in Cats

If you have observed the symptoms of tetanus in your cat, it is imperative that you seek veterinary attention immediately. The sooner a diagnosis can be made and treatment is administered to your cat, the better your cat’s prognosis is likely to be. Your veterinarian will likely utilize the following treatment options:

  • The vet will ask questions about the symptoms you have observed.
  • The vet will observe your cat’s behavior and symptoms.
  • Your cat will receive a thorough physical examination.
  • The vet may take blood, urine, and/or feces for testing.
  • The vet may take a sample of the tissue or fluids from the puncture wound to be tested for the tetanus toxin.

Treatment of Tetanus in Cats

If the veterinarian determines that your cat is suffering from tetanus toxemia, treatment will begin immediately. The following forms of treatment are most likely to utilized by your vet:

  • The wound will be drained and cleaned, perhaps repeatedly.
  • Muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, and sedatives may be administered to calm muscle spasms.
  • Antibiotics may be administered to curb the growth of the Clostridium tetani bacteria.
  • Tetanus antitoxin may be administered to counteract the effects of the bacterial toxin.

Recovery of Tetanus in Cats

Your cat’s prognosis is heavily dependent upon how quickly your cat received diagnosis and treatment after the infecting puncture wound occurred. Your veterinarian may require your cat to stay at the veterinary clinic or hospital overnight or for multiple days for treatment and observation. You may need to take your cat in once or more to have the wound drained and cleaned. You will need to administer all medications consistent with the instructions provided by your veterinarian. The vet may also decide to vaccinate your cat against future cases of tetanus toxemia. The prognosis for a cat that is treated immediately is often good, but the prognosis for a cat with a wound that goes untreated for any period of time is likely more grave.

Tetanus Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Ginger cat
2 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms

Loss of Appetite

My cat has suddenly become tired and is sleeping since a day he is having difficulties moving and is not eating anything. He is never this weak but all of a sudden he seems very weak and is not even meowing.

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
482 Recommendations
Thank you for your email. Without seeing Mew, it is hard for me to know what might be going on with him. It would be best to have him seen by your veterinarian so that they can look at it him, see what is happening, and recommend any testing or treatment that might be needed for him. I hope that he is okay.

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