Most hobby farms stay busy in spring, don’t they? Even if you don’t raise young animals, many typical animal husbandry practices occur this time of year.
One of the more common practices? Administering spring vaccines, and this typically includes a tetanus shot. We’ll take a closer look at this lethal disease and the simple steps to prevent it.
What Is Tetanus?
Tetanus has an interesting origin story. The disease—you may have heard its common name lockjaw—occurs via toxins produced by the bacteria Clostridium tetani. These anaerobic bacteria (they thrive in environments without oxygen—an important note) live in the soil.
They also show up in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals.
C. tetani hang out as spores in normal, healthy tissue and the ground. They don’t cause a problem—they exist basically in suspended animation—until their dream environment arrives: no oxygen.
Tetanus, Meet Animal
How does this happen in an animal? Consider the most common cause of tetanus: a deep puncture wound, as in stepping on a nail.
Within the damaged tissue, oxygen supply is cut off. Even in the smallest of wounds, this anaerobic environment stimulates the activation of C. tetani spores. They “awaken,” start to metabolize and grow, and release a very potent neurotoxin.
This causes tetanus.
This neurotoxin causes spasmodic muscle contractions. These gradually worsen as the toxin travels through the body via lymphatic drainage and the circulatory system. Eventually the toxin reaches the muscles needed for breathing.
If untreated, an animal with tetanus will die.
Luckily, you can buy relatively inexpensive tetanus vaccines easily and administer them yourself. You can purchase livestock tetanus vaccines as an individual vaccine or together with other vaccine combinations.
A common combo is the “C/D & T” vaccine for ruminants. This also vaccinates against two other types of Clostridial disease (C. perfringins, the cause of overeating disease) and C. tetani.
It’s also good to know the two types of tetanus shots you can give: tetanus toxoid and tetanus antitoxin.
The tetanus toxoid is the “true” vaccine in that, when given, it stimulates the animal’s immune system to develop antibodies against C. tetani for any future infection.
The key word here: future. You typically administer toxoid vaccines as a series of two shots as part of a regular vaccination program. Like any vaccine, the tetanus toxoid takes several weeks to stimulate the body to make an appropriate level of antibodies.
This immunity will last several months up to a year.
Conversely, the tetanus antitoxin acts more as an immediate prophylactic. This injection offers immediate protection from any C. tetani toxin in the body but only lasts a few weeks. Administration occurs if an animal already suffered an injury or wound.
It is also typically given on the day of castration and/or tail docking.
Read more: When is the best time to vaccinate calves?
So should you give the toxoid or antitoxin to your animals? Or both? The answer depends on timing.
If you perform castrating/tail docking, give the toxoid vaccine—complete with its booster—several weeks prior, and then give a dose of the antitoxin on the day of the surgery. If you simply give your adult animals their spring vaccines without any other procedures, a tetanus toxoid will do enough to provide year-long protection.
However, if at any point an animal suffers a puncture wound or deep laceration, your veterinarian will likely administer a dose of antitoxin just in case. Simply put, doubled up, a toxoid on board in the spring and the antitoxin when any surgical procedure or injury occurs is the best way to protect your animals from this lethal disease.