Tetanus in Horses 101: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Horses are very susceptible to tetanus. It is a very serious disease that usually ends with the horse dying from it or being euthanized. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and treat the disease. Here we will take a close look at tetanus in horses.

What Is Tetanus In Horses?

Tetanus is a serious disease that can affect any warm-blooded animal, including humans. It affects the nervous system, where it progresses sometimes until death. The muscles become rigid and twitch. In later stages of the disease, the muscles spasm uncontrollably. Tetanus is sometimes called lockjaw because of the tendency of the jaw and neck muscles to spasm or “lock.”

Horses with tetanus can often be seen stumbling on their feet and struggling to eat as they lose control of their muscles. In fact, many horses with tetanus are found dead with grass or hay still in their mouths.

Tetanus usually causes death in horses by asphyxiation when their diaphragm finally spasms.

Everyone in the equine community should be aware of the dangers of tetanus for several reasons. First, we want to protect our horses. Secondly, we must educate other horse enthusiasts so we can get the fatality rate of this painful disease down.

Symptoms of Tetanus in Horses

Some of the most common symptoms of tetanus in horses include:

  • Twitching and muscle spasms;
  • Difficulty moving and walking;
  • Sweating;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Lockjaw;
  • Protrusion of the third eyelid;
  • Respiratory failure.

These symptoms are easily recognizable. Early detection is necessary if there is to be any hope of the horse’s survival. Delaying treatment can cause a variety of prolonged and debilitating disorders. At the very least, catching it early will spare the animal some intense suffering should euthanasia become the most humane option.

What Causes Tetanus In Horses?

Tetanus is caused when the bacterium Clostridium tetani enters the horse’s bloodstream through a cut or other injury. The bacteria sometimes enters the body through surgical scars that have not healed properly.

Clostridium tetani is common and widespread in soil throughout the world. Although any warm-blooded animal can contract it, horses are most prone to tetanus because they are more susceptible to injury.

Tetanus is not contagious. Horses cannot contract it from other horses or animals, and humans cannot catch it from them either. It can only be contracted from the bacteria entering the bloodstream from contaminated soil or debris.

Treatment Options For Horses With Tetanus

The mortality rate for horses with tetanus is over 50 percent. It has been noted that horses that survive tetanus for seven days have a good chance of successful treatment.

There are no treatments that can be given by the layperson. Only a veterinarian has the experience and access to necessary medicines that a horse with tetanus needs.

Veterinary treatment begins with detection and treatment of the wound that allowed the bacteria to enter the horse’s body. The wound is cleansed, disinfected and dressed. Depending on how far the disease has progressed, stabling may be required. This is necessary to protect the horse from injuring itself due to poor muscle control caused by its illness. Its ears are sometimes plugged with cotton to reduce stimulation, which may cause excess movement and injury.

Antibiotics and Antitoxins

The veterinarian will begin antibiotics right away, both to treat the disease and to prevent further infection of the wound. Penicillin is the most commonly used antibiotic used to treat tetanus in horses.

By the time symptoms become apparent, the neurotoxins produced by the bacteria have already bound to the nervous system. But antitoxins are still used to neutralize toxins in the bloodstream that have not yet caused nervous system damage.

Dehydration and malnourishment are common at this stage. This sometimes makes intravenous hydration necessary. Sometimes a feeding tube is needed because the muscle spasms make it very difficult to eat.

The horse must be kept calm and as still as possible, preferably in a padded stall, to prevent falling. This period of the recovery may last several weeks, but total recovery can take anywhere from two weeks to several months.

If the horse receives treatment soon enough, as soon as the first symptoms appear, there may be no permanent health problems. Any lasting problems are usually incidental.

Prevention of Tetanus in Horses

The best and only reliable way to prevent tetanus is to have the horse vaccinated by a veterinarian. The tetanus vaccine is nearly 100 percent effective. Like all vaccines, however, the tetanus shot loses effectiveness over time. This necessitates adherence to a booster schedule.

Sometimes people forget about vaccine boosters. So a good diet, exercise, and regular veterinary checkups are necessary to promote good overall health. This will make treatment and recovery easier should the horse contract tetanus due to a missed booster shot.

Since the tetanus bacteria enters through cuts in the horse’s skin, any sharp hazards should be removed from areas frequented by the horse. It would be impossible to search an entire field for hazards, so keep them out in the first place. Stalls, where horses lay down, can be a high-risk area.


Tetanus is a very serious disease that may lead to permanent disability or death if not treated promptly. All horses should get the tetanus vaccine, which is the only practical way to prevent the disease. Horses that are not properly vaccinated should be watched carefully for symptoms so veterinary treatment can be started right away.

Images source: depositphotos.com

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