Last Updated on July 18, 2022
As a horse owner or carer, knowing the symptoms of tetanus in horses and other diseases can help you understand when it is important to seek veterinary help. The survival rate of a horse with tetanus is greatly increased when treatment is started promptly, before the horse gets too sick to make a full recovery.
Lets find out everything you need to know about tetanus in horses, including the key symptoms to look out for and how to prevent tetanus in horses.
What Is Tetanus In Horses?
Tetanus in horses is a neurological condition caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani. This is a common bacteria found both in the intestinal tract of horses and in the soil. It can survive for many years in the ground or on dirty or contaminated objects.
Horses can contract tetanus when they sustain a wound, particularly small puncture wounds. Even a very small wound carries the risk of tetanus infection.
The bacterial spores enter the wound, where they can multiply quickly under the right conditions. When these bacterial spores die, they release a neurotoxin called tetanospasmin. It is this toxin that causes the classic neurological symptoms seen in a horse with tetanus.
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What Are The Symptoms Of Tetanus In Horses?
Tetanus is an infectious neurological disorder of horses, that affects the normal functioning of the nervous system. When a horse contracts tetanus, it will normally have sustained a wound within the previous four weeks. This can be a tiny wound, and may not even be noticeable under the coat of the horse.
The initial symptoms of tetanus in horses include stiffness, colic, or lameness. Within a short space of time, other symptoms develop such as trembling, muscle spasm, and an abnormal gait. The leg muscles will become stiff, leading the horse to stand with the forelegs extended and the hindlimbs stretched backwards.
One common symptom that can occur in a horse with tetanus is that the jaw is locked shut, and the horse cannot open its mouth. This has led to the disease tetanus being referred to as ‘lockjaw’ in the past.
Horses with tetanus will also often sweat profusely, and may become very sensitive to tough. They may salivate excessively, with saliva accumulating in the mouth. Horses with tetanus can also have difficulty swallowing, and may aspirate food material into the lungs.
The clinical signs of tetanus are often exacerbated by excitement or external stimuli, such as bright lights and loud noises.
As the disease progresses, horses with tetanus will develop severe muscle rigidity, and will find it difficult to urinate, defecate, or rise from a resting position.
If the horse is unable to stand, the prognosis for recovery is very poor. Only around 20% of cases of tetanus in horses survive, and these tend to be horses that are still able to stand. With rapid and aggressive treatment, a full recovery from tetanus is possible.
Can Tetanus In Horses Be Treated?
The primary treatment for horses with tetanus is tetanus antitoxin, a drug containing antibodies against the tetanus toxin. Antibiotics are also routinely given, as well as other supportive therapies.
Horses with tetanus are kept in dark, quiet stalls on a deep, soft bed. Padded walls can help to prevent injury, and slings can be used to support horses that are unable to stand.
How To Prevent Tetanus In Horses
Luckily, thanks to vaccination, tetanus is easily preventable and this disease is now thankfully very rare in horses. The vaccine against tetanus is included in most core vaccination protocols, and provides a good level of cover against this dangerous disease.
All horses and ponies should be vaccinated against tetanus, and receive booster vaccinations at the interval advised by the vaccine manufacturer. If a wound is found on an unvaccinated horse, tetanus antitoxin can be administered to give short-term protection. Newborn foals can also be given tetanus antitoxin if the dam is not vaccinated.
As well as vaccinations, you can help prevent tetanus by maintaining good standards of hygiene and safety. Keep your horse’s accommodation free from materials that could cause injury, such as rusting metal and splintered wood. Any wounds should be cleaned immediately and good first aid measures should be maintained at all times.
Summary – Symptoms Of Tetanus In Horses
So, as we have learned, the initial symptoms of tetanus in horses include stiffness, colic, or lameness. Within a short space of time, other symptoms develop such as trembling, muscle spasm, and an abnormal gait. Only around 20% of cases of tetanus in horses survive, and these tend to be horses that are still able to stand.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the symptoms of tetanus in horses! Have you ever seen a case of tetanus in a horse or pony? Or maybe you’ve got some questions about tetanus vaccinations for horses? Leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you!
How Long Does It Take For Tetanus To Set In In Horses?
The length of time it takes for tetanus to set in in horses can be up to one month. This means that a horse can come down with tetanus several weeks after sustaining a wound.
Can Horses Survive Tetanus?
The survival rate for tetanus is very low, and around 80% of horses that contract tetanus will sadly die. The chances of making a full recovery from tetanus are far greater if treatment is implemented as soon as symptoms are observed.
How Long Does It Take To Show Signs Of Tetanus In Horses?
Tetanus occurs when the causative bacteria accumulate within a wound. When they die, they release a neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system of the horse. This may occur within a few days of a horse sustaining a wound, or it may be up to a month later.
How Often Does A Horse Need Tetanus Vaccination?
The length of time between tetanus vaccinations will depend on the brand of vaccine used by your veterinarian. Your horse may need an annual booster, or one every two years. If your horse sustains a wound, your veterinarian may recommend an additional booster to maximize protection against this often fatal disease of horses.
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their four-legged friends.
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN EVN VN A1 PGCE