Clostridium tetani, a bacteria.


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.

Where the disease occurs

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

The disease in animals

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.

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.

Control of the disease in animals

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.

The vaccination protocol usually includes an intial course of two doses 4-6 weeks apart followed by booster vaccination. Horses are commonly given a yearly booster.

How people can get the disease

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.

Symptoms include 'locking' of the jaw and an increasing stiffness of other muscles resulting in difficulty in breathing and swallowing. At least 10% of people who develop tetanus in Australia will die as a result of the disease.

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

Treatments for people

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.

Preventing the disease in people
  • 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 five years, or has never completed the three-dose course of tetanus vaccination, seek medical attention immediately.

Further information

Last updated 27 September 2012