Should I Get a Tetanus Shot if I Got Bit by a Dog?

by Liza Blau
    Your physician can determine if a tetanus shot is needed after a dog bite.

    Your physician can determine if a tetanus shot is needed after a dog bite.

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    Approximately 4.5 million people suffer from dog bites each year in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 885,000 seek medical attention with 3 percent to 18 percent developing infections such as tetanus. Tetanus infections have become rare in the United States and other developed countries, thanks to the tetanus vaccine. But around 1 million cases of tetanus still occur worldwide every year, according to MayoClinic.com. If you've been bitten by a dog, it's vital to determine if you need a tetanus shot, which can protect your health and possibly save your life.

    Tetanus Infection

    Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a potentially fatal illness caused by the Clostridium tetani bacteria. The disease can affect the nervous system adversely in almost all mammals. In humans, it causes painful muscle contractions, typically in the neck muscles, jaw and abdomen. If untreated, tetanus can cause high blood pressure, respiratory failure and fever. While humans can become infected with tetanus through a dog bite, it's not the bite that causes the illness but the opening in skin that allows the tetanus bacteria to enter the bloodstream. Tetanus can be fatal to individuals who haven't been immunized and in older adults with weak immune systems. Approximately 18 percent of people who develop tetanus die -- fatalities are highest in those over 60-years-old, according to Mother Earth News.

    Dogs and Tetanus

    Tetanus is not common in dogs, but does appear occasionally. The Clostridium tetani bacteria thrives in low oxygen environments, such as cultivated soil, animal waste and dust. It can proliferate inside wounds from injury, frostbite, burns, fractures and surgery, according to PetMD (see reference 8). Unattended wounds that become contaminated are the main cause of tetanus in dogs. Diagnosis of tetanus is usually made after a physical examination of the dog and muscles surrounding the wound, which may have become rigid. Symptoms the dog may exhibit include weakness, stiffness and an uncoordinated movement. Stray dogs and dogs that spend much time outdoors are at greatest risk.

    Tetanus Shot Determination

    If you've been bitten by a dog, seek immediate medical attention. If your doctor is unavailable, call 911 or go directly to an emergency care facility. Your doctor will examine the dog bite and assess damage to the skin, underlying muscle, bones and nerves, and thoroughly clean the bite to try and prevent infection. To determine if you need a tetanus shot, the doctor will ask when you received your last tetanus vaccination. She'll recommend a tetanus shot to protect you against possible infection if the dog bite punctured your skin and it's been longer than five years since your last shot. If needed, the tetanus shot should be administered within 24 hours of any skin puncture, according to Columbia University.

    Reporting Dog Bites

    File a bite report with your county or city health commissioner, or animal control department, recommends the National Canine Resource Council. Your detailed report will provide legal documentation for your own records, alert the proper authorities about the biting dog and protect others in the community against the same fate. Typically, bite reports are required to be filed within 24 hours after the bite. While filling out the report, provide as much information as you can about the dog, including a physical description, name of the dog's owner, date and location of where the bite occurred, how the bite occurred, and if you know the dog's vaccination status.

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    About the Author

    Liza Blau received a B.A. in English from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in fiction anthologies from Penguin Press, W.W. Norton, NYU Press and others. After healing her own life-threatening asthma by switching to a whole, natural foods diet, she founded the NYC Asthma Wellness Center. Blau counsels individuals on healing their own asthma and allergies with dietary and lifestyle changes.

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