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What is Lockjaw?

Tetanus or lockjaw spores live in the soil. Once they enter the body of your horse they produce a powerful neurotoxin that causes muscle spasms. Incubation is roughly 8 days or they can lie dormant until trauma occurs, creating low oxygen that is the perfect environment for this disease to develop. 

Your horse is usually infected through a wound breaking the skin. Especially deep wounds with damaged or dead tissue are the ideal situation for lockjaw to gain entry into the body. Sometimes these wounds heal over and you may not notice them, which is why if your horses are not protected from this bacterial species observation is crucial. It is vital to observe the early stages of lockjaw to increase the chances of your horse’s survival. At first you may notice a little stiffness and difficulty moving around in your horse. Colic may become a problem and third eyelid protrusion and spasms may occur. You may notice that your horse will react violently to loud or sudden noises, and it may cause convulsions.

Once the advanced stages set in your horse’s body will become very rigid and moving will become difficult. They will have problems breathing and difficulty in swallowing. Jaw contractions and locking of the jaw combined with seizures occurs and in many cases, will lead to its demise. All of this is avoidable by a simple vaccine shot from your veterinarian and continuing the course of the treatment to keep the immune system fully primed for action against this most prolific and nastiest of diseases.

Lockjaw (tetanus) is a disease from bacteria that live in low oxygen conditions. Entry to the horse is often through open or deep puncture wounds.

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Symptoms of Lockjaw in Horses

  • Stiffness and a reluctance to move much
  • Sawhorse stance where the legs are held out wider and the pose is stiff 
  • Exaggerated facial muscle spasms causing lips to be pulled back 
  • Tetanus is often called lockjaw with toxins attacking the central nervous system
  • Jaw muscles become rigid and your horse can’t eat 
  • Spasms can cause him to arch his neck back, and stand with a rigid body stance 
  • You may notice your horse walking strangely with an unusual choppy gait 
  • The tail is held out stiffly 

Types  

  • Lockjaw has been categorised as two types – traumatic and idiopathic
  • Traumatic is where there has been a wound, cut or scrape to the flesh allowing the bacteria entry into the body
  • Idiopathic is very rare and occurs without an entry point such as a cut or graze
  • Sometimes the wound is very small but there is usually some sort of entry point allowing the bacteria to enter 
  • The hoof or foot area is the area more prone to allow infection as they are in direct contact with the ground

Causes of Lockjaw in Horses

  • Lockjaw is caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani
  • The bacteria spores can be found in the ground, or on contaminated feces or rusty objects in the pasture 
  • Horses are more susceptible to this condition because of the environment they live in 
  • This disease is cruel as it attacks the nerves, spinal cord and eventually the brain
  • Wounds to the body that are not cleansed and dressed allowing bacteria to enter

Diagnosis of Lockjaw in Horses

Depending on the stage of the condition, clinical signs may be all that is needed for the veterinarian to diagnose lockjaw. Evidence of a cut, puncture, or hoof infection and signs of lockjaw such as stiffness, spasms, or colic may indicate the condition. Your veterinarian could suggest blood work to see if the tetanus toxin is present. Investigation of a smear taken from the wound site could also prove valuable. However, the veterinary specialist may choose to treat for lockjaw before test results are complete as the progression of the condition can lead to serious consequences such as difficulty swallowing, rigid stance and convulsions.

Treatment of Lockjaw in Horses

Treatment can be administered but is not generally successful. A lot depends on the severity of the disease and how advanced it has progressed. Once the jaw locks recovery is almost impossible making even drinking water extremely difficult. Your equine veterinarian can advise on treatment for your horse which may include penicillin injections and antitoxin administration. 

Vaccinations are available and you should immunise your horse regularly. Pregnant mares need to be vaccinated around the four to six-week period prior to birth which will give immunity to the foal via the colostrum. This will enable the newborn foal protection for the first two to three months of their life, then a course of vaccinations will continue the protection. For a newborn foal, the first vaccination is usually around four months of age. 

As the protection of the vaccination does expire, it is vital to continue the course to provide full protection. If your horse gets a cut or wound and has not been vaccinated, don’t wait and see what happens, clean the area, and apply a fresh dressing and get the veterinarian to give a vaccination. The disease only takes from 3-21 days of incubation time so quick treatment is essential. It is important to remember that a horse that has recovered from a natural infection is not immune and still requires a tetanus shot for protection.

Recovery of Lockjaw in Horses

If caught early, lockjaw can be treated and recovery from the condition is possible depending on how advanced the disease has gone, but prevention is by far the easiest option. With a vaccination readily available and affordable, this is by far the best method of managing this disease. Pasture management should include removal of any rusty tools and nails in the area. Being mindful that the bacteria readily enter the body from a wound, if you observe any cut or scrape on your horse, even the smallest of wounds, then cleaning and dressing it should be done.

Recovering horses need a lot of care and should be kept in a quiet peaceful dark stall away from any loud sounds. Thick bedding and padding of the stall may help against injury from convulsions. Secondary complications, as in pneumonia are possible, so careful management is advised.