Harness Racing Victoria's vets take a closer look at tetanus, a bacteria disease than can cause the death of horses.

Dr Nick Branson and Dr Lesley Hawson look at how horses get tetanus, whether it's contagious, what infection looks looks like and how to treat and prevent it.

How do horses get tetanus?

The spores or immature stages of the bacteria lives in the soil and horse faeces. Tetanus bacteria release a poison called tetanus toxin, which spreads around the body through the blood and causes tetanus infection to occur. When a wound gets contaminated, tetanus spores enter the body and an infection starts.

Is tetanus contagious?

Tetanus does not spread between horses. It can be picked up from the environment and is especially prevalent in horse intestines and therefore is passed out into horse faeces.

What does a horse infected with tetanus look like?

The signs of tetanus in a horse are caused by tetanus toxin affecting the nerves that is most easily noticed as the muscles not working properly. Horses with tetanus can show all or some of these signs: stiff-legged movement, third eyelid covering the eye, unusual facial grimace caused by muscle spasms and being easily startled to a loud noise.

Can you treat horses after they have become infected with tetanus?

Unfortunately, tetanus infection in horses is often fatal. This is due to toxin that spreads around the body once an infection occurs. Ultimately, death usually occurs from respiratory failure. A treatment called tetanus anti-toxin is available and it provides rapid protection against tetanus toxin. But tetanus anti-toxin must be given as soon as possible after a skin wound occurs. This is why it is sometimes used by vets when doing surgery – it will be in the horse’s system at the same time as the skin wound occurs. See here for more information about tetanus anti-toxin: Tetanus Anti-Toxin

Can you vaccinate horses to prevent tetanus?

Vaccination is the most successful way to prevent horses from getting tetanus. Information about tetanus vaccine and timing of its use is available here: Tetanus Vaccine


If a horse sustains an open skin wound, be aware that tetanus infection can occur. All first aid steps to reduce infection from occurring should be taken as quickly as possible, including seeking veterinary advice. Vaccinating horses against tetanus is a successful way to prevent this disease.