Tetanus is a bacterial disease that is common in horses due to their active lifestyle and how much of their life they spend outdoors. Here, our Southern Wisconsin veterinarians share the symptoms of tetanus in horses, when to get your horse vaccinated for tetanus, and how you can help prevent your horse from contracting it.
What is tetanus in horses?
Tetanus is a bacterial disease that typically impacts the mobility, immune system, and sometimes brain of the horse once it is contracted. While this infection is a concern for all pet owners, tetanus is most prevalent in horses as it is commonly found in soil and fecal matter.
As many horses spend most of their lives outdoors, either in a fenced off field or barn stable, it is not unheard of for horses to accidentally scratch themselves on old fencing or barn equipment. However, contrary to popular belief, it is not the rust on these metals that causes tetanus.
Rust actually does not cause tetanus at all. Once a horse scratches itself, that open wound is able to become infected by soil, feces, or other elements of the horse's environment that carry the bacteria for tetanus.
Given how common it is, it is important for horse owners to understand the causes and symptoms of tetanus, how it's treated, and how you can prevent your horse from getting it.
Causes & Symptoms of Tetanus in Horses
As we mentioned above, tetanus is commonly contracted through contact with infected soil and animal droppings. Clostridium tetani is the bacterium in the environment that causes tetanus once it enters the bloodstream. Puncture wounds on the legs and bottoms of the hooves - in the soft tissue - are common infection sites of tetanus in horses.
So, you know how tetanus is contracted, but how do you identify tetanus in your horse? Tetanus symptoms in horses vary, growing in severity and health impact over time if left untreated.
Some of the common tetanus symptoms in horses include:
- Difficulty moving and eating
- Swelling of the eyes
- Rapidly appearing fever
- Muscle stiffness (your horse swaying or experiencing lock-jaw)
If you notice any of these symptoms in your horse, contact your veterinarian right away. It is possible they have tetanus or another medical condition that requires prompt treatment.
How is tetanus in horses prevented & treated?
Tetanus is a fairly preventable condition in horses. There is a vaccine available to horses that should be first administered at 12 weeks old, followed by annual boosters. Foals can even be protected from tetanus during the first few weeks of life if the pregnant mother is vaccinated for tetanus one month before the foal is born. Your veterinarian will minimize the horse's potential reaction to the tetanus vaccine by monitoring their condition following administration of the vaccine.
An unvaccinated horse that is wounded is at risk for tetanus and should be taken to the vet right away. Your vet will usually administer a tetanus antitoxin to reduce the risk of the horse contracting the disease. The wounds should be cleaned and disinfected as soon as possible.
The injured horse should be kept far from any farm equipment, fencing, dirty stables or other animals until they are taken to the vet to be treated for their wound.
When it comes to treatment, horses must be treated as quickly as possible once they are wounded, especially if the cut has been exposed to potentially infected material, such as feces or soil.
Tetanus can quickly lead to death in horses if it is not treated promptly. If it is caught early, your veterinarian will administer the appropriate medication to kill the Clostridium Tetani bacteria in their bloodstream. This will prevent the toxin from being reproduced inside the horse.
Antibiotics, penicillin and tetanus antitoxins are the most common treatments for tetanus in horses.
How to Help Your Horse With Tetanus
If you suspect your horse has contracted tetanus or is at risk of contracting it, seek veterinary care right away. Other than medical treatment, you can do a few things to make your horse more comfortable. Some of these things include keeping the horse in a dark, quiet stable to minimize anxiety. You can also offer them food at an easily reachable height to see if they still have their appetite.
If you're unsure how to help your horse while they're recovering from tetanus, consult your veterinarian.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.