Tetanus is a severe disease that can make a horse seriously ill or can even be fatal. The bacteria that causes tetanus is typically found within the horse's intestines and can be passed in manure. When conditions are favorable, the bacterium grows and can live for long periods of time. If a horse becomes wounded, the bacteria can infect the horse which leads to tetanus.
A horse infected with tetanus will show signs of the disease at varying rates. The typical symptoms may appear within a few days but can also take several months. The first clinical sign of tetanus is generally muscle stiffness of the jaw and rear legs. Within 24 hours of the first signs, the horse will noticeably show more signs throughout its body. The body becomes oversensitive with sporadic spasms being noticeable in the muscles. The horse will be conscious through this period of the illness.
As the disease progresses, the horse will appear stiff and may be unable to lift its head up or down, preventing eating. The legs, ears, and tail will all appear rigid and the nostrils typically flare. The horse's gait will be unusual and difficult with some owners misdiagnosing the problem for constipation or colic. A sign that differentiates this from other stomach ailments is in the third eyelid which may show significantly over the innner corner of the eye. The horse will sweat and the heart rate will be rapid. As the disease reaches its maximum, the horse's temperature will be extremely elevated which leads to brain damage.
If the tetanus is caught in the early stages, a veterinarian can attempt to administer tetanus antitoxin and antibiotics. Tranquilizers and muscle relaxers can also be administered to ease muscle spasms and calm the horse. Horse owners need to be fully aware of what medications are being prescribed as tetanus antitoxin can lead to liver problems after the horse has recovered from the tetanus.
Once the veterinarian has relied on modern medicine, it is now up to the horse owner to provide nursing care to their animal. This includes providing a quiet area to recover with soft bedding. The area should be a stall with an emergency sling available in case the horse collapses. Food and water should be placed where the horse doesn't have to strain or move too high or too low to acquire their needs. If a horse refuses to eat, a veterinarian may need to supply a stomach feeding tube. Animals that do recover may need up to 6 weeks of dedicated care.
Tetanus is highly preventable with a simple vaccination. Different vaccines have distinctive guidelines about when to vaccinate and how often. Generally, young horses or those not previously vaccinated need two injections approximately four weeks apart. A third dose is then given about nine months later and a booster given annually thereafter. Veterinarians recommend additional boosters any time a horse becomes wounded especially on the hoof. Pregnant mares are often immunized prior to foaling to protect against the bacteria in case of tearing during birth and to boost antibodies in her colostrum which is passed on to her foal.
Due to modern medicine and preventative measures, tetanus is not as widespread as it once was. However, it is still a deadly disease with approximately 80 percent of infected horses dying from the illness simply because a horse lacked proper vaccination. Horse owners should have their animals vaccinated against tetanus; it is a much simpler and cheaper alternative to treating a horse with the disease or losing the life of the horse.
HOW TO BE YOUR OWN VETERINARIAN, by Ruth B. James, DVM, copyright 1990.