Tetanus is caused by a toxin produced by Clostridium tetani. The bacteria are commonly found in the environment, particularly in soil, dust and manure. All animal species and people can become infected.


Clostridium tetani


Tetanus can occur anywhere. Due to the availability of effective vaccines, tetanus is now a rare disease.


Animals, humans

Affected animals

  • humans
  • animals
  • cattle
  • sheep
  • goats
  • pigs
  • horses

Clinical signs


Symptoms include:

  • 'locking' of the jaw
  • an increasing stiffness of other muscles
  • difficulty in breathing and swallowing.

At least 10% of people who develop tetanus in Australia will die as a result of the disease.


The disease produces an increasing stiffness of the muscles due to spasms.The animal will not be able to swallow and have an unsteady gait. Eventually, the animal falls in a tetanic spasm with the limbs stretched out rigidly and is unable to breathe.



When infection has occurred at castration, tail docking or mulesing of sheep, a large number of animals can be affected and mortality rates can be high.

How it is spread


Tetanus results from bacterial contamination of a cut or wound. Even a tiny pinprick or a scratch can be an entry point for the bacteria, but deep puncture wounds or cuts are more likely to become infected.


The bacteria enters animals either through deep traumatic wounds, during parturition, or as a consequence of management procedures. Horses are more susceptible to tetanus than other animals and soil contaminated with horse manure commonly contains tetanus spores.

Risk period

People who have an immune-system disorder which prevents them from responding adequately to vaccination may be more at risk.



Vaccination is the best way to protect against tetanus.

Clean all wounds thoroughly with soap and water. If a person gets a tetanus-prone wound and has not had a tetanus booster dose in the previous 5 years, or has never completed the 3-dose course of tetanus vaccination, seek medical attention immediately.

The treatment for tetanus involves giving tetanus antitoxin to combat the toxins produced by the infecting bacteria. This is generally done in a hospital intensive care facility because the patient will have difficulty breathing and muscle spasms need to be controlled.

As recovery from tetanus may not result in immunity, an important part of the treatment is to ensure that the person is vaccinated to prevent them from contracting tetanus in the future.


The vaccination protocol usually includes an initial course of 2 doses 4-6 weeks apart followed by booster vaccination. Horses are commonly given a yearly booster. Treatment of small animals with antibiotics and good supportive therapy can be effective. However, the disease in livestock is usually too advanced for treatment to be successful. A vaccine is available for horses, cattle, sheep and goats.

Further information