Tetanus — a nasty disease, but easy to prevent

In our practice, the incidence of tetanus has definitely been increasing in the last several years. This article will review some of the pertinent signs of tetanus and look at the prevention of this deadly disease.

Tetanus is caused by the bacterium Clostridium Tetani, which is in the same family of organisms that causes blackleg. This spore-producing bacteria causes fairly sudden death, and treatment is often not successful. There are differences in susceptibility to tetanus among the different species, with horses the most sensitive and cattle more resistant. However it has been in cattle where we have seen the increase in cases. The cases are always associated with a puncture wound or cut. These wounds can be internal, such as a deep scrape to the genital tract during calving.

Once susceptible animals have been exposed it takes one to three weeks for disease to occur. Clinical signs are a sawhorse stance, prolapse of the third eyelid and lockjaw. The lockjaw caused by the contraction of the masseter muscles also causes tremendous salivation.

The veterinarian will most likely have you treat with very high doses of penicillin and give large amounts of tetanus antitoxin, especially around the wound. As mentioned, recovery is very rare but has been reported in cattle.

The best solution is prevention. One must be careful as very few of the blackleg vaccines contain tetanus. It is generally only in the eight-way or nine-way vaccines and you must check the label to make sure it is present. Your veterinarian can best advise as to which vaccine carries tetanus.

In horses, the yearly three- or four-way vaccines will often carry tetanus. Veterinarians will often ask when castrating your horse or suturing up a cut if the tetanus vaccinations are up to date. If not the horse will be given a booster shot. Often penicillin is given for a few days or if a long-acting shot is given this generally will protect your horse until immunity is established. Giving it yearly in the four-way vaccine is the best approach in horses.

Banding larger bulls with the elastrators really increases the incidence if proper vaccination is not administered. We have also seen it with simply vaccinating with a dirty needle and tail docking or shearing in sheep. A dog attack on a lamb also has caused the disease from the open wound.

Some producers have got away without vaccinating. I think the reason is simple — as the combination vaccines have been developed often hemophilus is combined with the clostridials and with most companies the combination has included a seven-way NOT an eight-way with tetanus.

Our clinic stresses the eight-way especially if banding calves in the feedlot or castrating. Proper disinfection at needling or castrating will also go a long ways to prevent it. With banding you cannot do this plus it does create an open wound for quite a long time.

Retained placentas especially in horses have been known to cause tetanus so boostering at the time of treatment would also be a good idea.

The good news is the tetanus vaccine in combination with the other clostridials is one of the oldest and hence cheapest vaccines on the market. Boostering is imperative especially in situations such as banding or open castration. Treatment is unrewarding in clinical cases. Talk to your veterinarian as to what specific vaccination they recommend for your cattle, horses, bison, elk, camelids, or sheep and goats. They should all be current in their vaccination for tetanus.

This is a disease which can also affect humans. Every time you see the doctor about a cut or abrasion they will ask you when was the last time you received a tetanus shot. People are usually boostered every 10 years or so.

As with the other clostridial diseases another booster will give long immunity. Most producers will booster the cow herd again every several years. With more producers keeping cows longer because of this BSE crisis, one may want to consider boostering the herd with an eight-way vaccine containing tetanus. With proper administration of the clostridial vaccines, 99 per cent protection is achieved. Calves when born to protected cows receive protection in the colostrum, which will last two months. This is why vaccination on them should begin after that time.

I hope by keeping your herd current you will never see a case of tetanus or any other clostridial disease for that matter. They are not a pretty sight.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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