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How to identify tetanus in dairy animals

What to look for

  • Stiff movement
  • Over-reaction to sudden sounds or movements
  • Muscle spasms
  • Sudden death


A bacterial infection (Clostridium tetani).

This organism is widespread in the environment, but only rarely causes disease in cattle. Tetanus usually occurs when an animal has had a penetrating wound, has been castrated or tail docked, or had a difficult calving. It can take days to weeks from sustaining the original wound until the appearance of tetanus. The tetanus organism must enter the wound and be sealed off from the air before it can multiply. It then produces a powerful toxin that targets the nerves responsible for muscle movements.

Animals likely to be affected

Cattle of any age.

Other diseases with similar signs

Other diseases that cause sudden death. Young animals seen in the early stages of the disease might show similar signs to animals with polioencephalomalacia.

Confirming the diagnosis

The tetanic muscle spasms are usually characteristic enough to diagnose tetanus, especially if there is a history of a deep wound in the last few weeks.

Spread of the disease

The disease does not spread from animal to animal, but sometimes a number of animals may develop tetanus at the same time. This is usually because the animals have become infected at the same time following a procedure such as castration.

Risks to people

Take care when handling animals that are experiencing muscle spasms. People cannot get tetanus from direct contact with cattle, but are susceptible to infection with the tetanus organism through a penetrating wound. It is also important for all people that handle livestock to make sure that their tetanus vaccinations are up to date.


If animals are seen early in the course of the disease and are particularly valuable, your vet may administer an antitoxin and recommend other measures that will save some animals. Treatment is not effective if animals are in an advanced stage of the disease.


Ensure that all calves are protected against tetanus with a clostridial vaccine (5 in 1, 7 in 1 or 8 in 1). Use high levels of hygiene when performing procedures such as castration and dehorning.