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Tetanus in Horses and Humans

Updated on December 24, 2012

tetanus vaccine, tetanus shot, tetanus booster

I grew up being worried about tetanus. Yeah, I know – I don’t think tetanus is something most kids even think about. But I had special circumstances that were the cause of my tetanus phobia. My mom was a champion worrier, and she was a registered nurse who had seen the effects of the disease firsthand in some of the farmers who were her patients. Also, I was always around horses, barns, and stables, which are all prime breeding grounds for tetanus. Horses can get tetanus, too. Even worse, I often went barefoot in the summers, so Mom was always worried that I’d step on a nail at the barn and get tetanus. It seems like I had to get a tetanus shot about once a month. Of course, I realize I didn’t actually get a tetanus booster that often, but that’s the way it seemed to me when I was a kid. I’m happy to report that I somehow escaped the deadly jaws of tetanus, and of all the horses I’ve owned over the years, I had only one to develop the disease. We learned the importance of a tetanus shot and a tetanus booster the hard way.

Contaminated nails can cause tetanus.
Contaminated nails can cause tetanus.

What is tetanus

What is tetanus? After Botulinin D, the tetanus toxin is the deadliest toxin on the planet, and it can be found virtually anywhere. Tetanus is caused by a bacterium known as Clostridium tetani. The endospores can lie dormant for long periods of time and are found in the soil and in animal droppings, especially those from cattle, sheep, chickens, and horses. You can see now that Mom’s fears about my being around horse manure weren’t completely unfounded. Once the spores enter the body of a suitable host, they can multiply rapidly, and they don’t need oxygen to survive and thrive. That’s why deep puncture wounds sometimes invite the tetanus bacteria to set up shop. Obviously, stepping on a nail that has been exposed to horse manure is a good way to get tetanus.

Tetanus spores can live in soil or in animal droppings.
Tetanus spores can live in soil or in animal droppings.

Symptoms of tetanus in humans

This disease was known as “lockjaw” for years, and there’s a good reason for this. Tetanus affects the voluntary muscles, especially those in the face and jaw. When the tetanus bacteria affect the facial and neck muscles, eating, swallowing, and even talking can become difficult. The victim might drool or have a “frozen” facial expression. It can also affect the muscles in the abdomen, the chest, the back, the hands, and the feet. The muscle contractions and spasms can be so powerful that they can actually cause muscle damage and bone fractures, and they might also make it difficult to breathe.

The symptoms of tetanus might also include fever, arching of the back, excessive sweating, weakness, muscle pain, and irritability. A person with tetanus might also lose control of their bladder and bowels.

Symptoms of tetanus in horses might include neck stiffness and stretching.
Symptoms of tetanus in horses might include neck stiffness and stretching.

Symptoms of tetanus in horses

Symptoms of equine tetanus in horses are similar to those found in humans. The facial muscles are usually affected, so the animal will usually have trouble eating. The horse might appear stiff and find walking difficult. In fact, some horses with tetanus might not be able to stand on their own. A horse with tetanus might also have fever and sweat profusely. The ears usually stand up stiffly, and the tail might be stiff and stick almost straight out. The horse might also stretch its head and neck out straight. Other symptoms of tetanus in horses include a prolapsed third eyelid, rapid heartbeat, nasal congestion, rapid breathing, and violent reactions to external stimuli.

Dead tissue must be removed, and any abscesses must be drained.
Dead tissue must be removed, and any abscesses must be drained.

Tetanus treatment - humans

Tetanus treatment in humans often includes doses of powerful antibiotics like penicillin, Flagyl, erythromycin, or clindamycin. These drugs might be given orally, as an injection, or administered via IV.

Wound care is also extremely important. The wound must be carefully cleansed, and any dead tissue and dirt must be removed. This helps stop more spores from growing. If abscesses have formed, they must be drained. The aim is to get as much oxygen as possible to the wound.

If the tetanus toxin hasn’t yet attached to nerve tissues, tetanus immune globulin, which is an antitoxin for the tetanus bacterium, might also be administered.

Muscle relaxers and sedatives are usually administered, also. Because breathing is often difficult, many victims of tetanus might also need supplemental oxygen, a ventilator, or a breathing tube.

Proper wound care is a must!
Proper wound care is a must!

Tetanus treatment – horses

Tetanus treatment for horses is similar in nature to that used in humans. The wound must be properly cared for, usually with chlorine or iodine, and antibiotics like penicillin are given. Tetanus antitoxin might also be given, via intramuscular injection, IV, or both. A horse that’s unable to stand on its own might be supported by a special sling. If the horse is unable to urinate, a catheter might be inserted into the bladder. Fluids by IV might also be used. Sedatives and muscle relaxers might be used to calm the horse and to lessen the severity of muscle spasms.

The affected equine should be kept in a dark, quiet stall, away from anything that could excite or irritate it. Food and water should be made available and easily accessible. Most horses with tetanus have difficulty in lowering their heads, so the food and water should be placed at about shoulder height to the animal.

Most veterinarians will tell you that of all animals, horses are probably the most sensitive to tetanus. Unfortunately, once a horse has developed tetanus, the prognosis isn’t usually good. Treatment options are often expensive – in money and in time. Ultimately, many equines with tetanus are euthanized. I was lucky to have a horse survive tetanus, with no long term effects. An eighteen-month-old stallion that had just been gelded developed tetanus. He exhibited the classical symptoms of tetanus, so I called our vet immediately. He treated the gelding with antibiotics, fluids, and tetanus antitoxin, and I took very good care of the horse while he recovered.

Tetanus toxoid can be used for horses and for humans.
Tetanus toxoid can be used for horses and for humans.

Tetanus toxoid – tetanus vaccine

The tetanus vaccine is comprised of tetanus toxoid. As is usually the case with anything, prevention is much better than treatment in the case of tetanus. To make the tetanus toxoid tetanus vaccination, the Clostridium tetani bacteria is grown in a laboratory and is then detoxified by using formaldehyde. Saline is then added to the tetanus toxoid. The tetanus toxoid tetanus vaccine also contains preservatives, and the solution is sterile. The tetanus vaccine is very effective in preventing the disease, although tetanus toxoid isn’t 100% effective.

The tetanus vaccine and tetanus shot or tetanus booster are extremely important.
The tetanus vaccine and tetanus shot or tetanus booster are extremely important.

Tetanus toxoid for humans

In the United States and most other developed nations, tetanus toxoid is given at an early age, as part of other regular childhood immunizations. The vaccine that is most widely used now is DTaP, which prevents diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. The first dose injection should be given at the age of two months. Subsequent doses should be given at the age of four months, six months, and eighteen months. A fifth vaccination is usually given just before the child starts pre-K or kindergarten, at the age of four or five. Physicians recommend another dose of DTaP at the age of eleven.

After this schedule, a tetanus shot, called a tetanus booster, should be received every ten years. If a suspicious injury occurs before the ten-year period is up, some doctors recommend having another tetanus shot or tetanus booster immediately. After that, the ten-year schedule should start over.

An at-risk foal can receive a tetanus vaccination of tetanus antitoxin immediately after birth.
An at-risk foal can receive a tetanus vaccination of tetanus antitoxin immediately after birth.

Tetanus toxoid for horses

I’d honestly never given much thought to tetanus in horses before my gelding developed the condition. After that episode, however, we began giving the tetanus vaccine to our equines. We used Equivac, which protects horses from tetanus and from strangles, a serious infection caused by the Streptococcus equi bacterium. This vaccine contains tetanus toxoid and should be started when foals are three months old. For foals born in high risk areas, tetanus antitoxin can be administered as soon as the foal is born. It’s continued every two weeks, until the age of three months, when the foals can receive tetanus toxoid.

After receiving the strangles-tetanus vaccine at the age of twelve weeks, the second vaccine should be given at fourteen weeks, with the third given at sixteen weeks. At the age of sixteen months, a strangles and tetanus booster should be given. After that, a tetanus booster or tetanus shot should be given every four to five years.

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    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      9 years ago from Georgia

      Hi, Nature. Yeah, a tetanus booster is no fun, but they sure are important!

    • natures47friend profile image


      9 years ago from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand.

      This hub is so informative. I used to hate the boosters. My brother used to mange to get an annual wound.......boys ...When I worked on a building site they show films about not ignoring any stab injuries...voted up.

    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      9 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Mary. I sometimes wore cowboy boots, but in the summers, I often went barefoot at the barn - especially if we were taking the horses swimming.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      9 years ago from Florida

      habee, I enjoy your Hubs about animals so much. I can identify with the danger of Tetanus. I always made my kids wear their cowboy boots when they rode or worked in the horse sheds. I voted this UP, etc.


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