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Tetanus in Cattle

Tetanus is a fairly common disease occurring in all types of livestock. It is relatively rare in cattle, but outbreaks of disease can cause very severe losses.


Tetanus is caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. This bacterium is found in the soil and the guts of animals and humans.

The disease starts when the organism gets into wounded or damaged tissue as a result of contamination. In the absence of oxygen the bacteria multiply and produce a local infection.

As they grow, the bacteria produce toxins, which spread along the nerves to the brain and cause the clinical signs of tetanus.

The time between infection and disease can be very short (two or three days) or quite long (four weeks or more), depending on how long it takes for the contaminated area to develop a low level of oxygen (such as by a wound healing over sealing off the tissue from the outside).

The disease is seen in all ages of stock. Calving and castration seem to be the most common procedures linked to the development of tetanus.

Clinical signs

  • Stiffness and reluctance to move are normally the first signs
  • Twitching and tremors of the muscles
  • Lockjaw
  • Prominent protruding third eyelid
  • Unsteady gait with stiff held out tail
  • Affected cattle are usually anxious and easily excited by sudden movements or handling.
  • Bloat is common because the rumen stops working
  • Later signs include collapse, lying on side with legs held stiffly out, spasm and death.


Cattle with early tetanus probably respond to treatment better than most other livestock. Antitoxin is of very little use unless given in the very early states of infection.

In some cases sedatives and relaxants have been known to aid recovery.

It is not worth treating cattle with fully developed tetanus.


Undertaking surgical procedures (such as castration) properly, in a clean environment, with disinfected instruments and surgical area, will significantly reduce the risk of tetanus. The same rules apply to calving, be as clean as possible and minimise contamination.

Antitoxin can be useful as a short-acting (up to 21 days) preventative if used at high risk times, however on some farms vaccination may be better, as a three dose course of vaccination can result in protection for over three years.

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