Definition of Tetanus
(Scientific name: Clostridium tetani)

From the elephant glossary Section: disease

Relevant Literature about Tetanus
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Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is a medical condition characterized by a prolonged contraction of skeletal muscle fibers. The primary symptoms are caused by tetanospasmin, a neurotoxin produced by the Gram-positive, obligate anaerobic bacterium Clostridium tetani.

Clostridium tetani is more common in the tropics, and can be found in soil, and feces of horse, humans and cattle.

Infection generally occurs through wound contamination, and often involves a cut or deep anaearobic puncture wound. As the infection progresses, body temperature increase, muscle spasms in the jaw develop, hence the name lockjaw. This is followed by difficulty in swallowing and general muscle stiffness and spasms in other parts of the body. Often the elephant has to be supported by a sling, in order to stand up.

Treatment include wound cleaning and draining, and penicillin or antibiotics.

Infection can be prevented by proper immunization (vaccination) and by post-exposure prophylaxis.

Records about Tetanus from the Gone Astray: Elephant care manual for Mahouts and camp managers (Thailand)

Tetanus is caused by a long-living anaerobic bacterium that is found in the soil and in moist areas. Tetanus is usually found in elephants that have suffered deep wounds, usually in the foot and particularly through the footpad being pierced by a metal object such as an old, rusty nail. After the bacteria have entered the elephant's body they thrive and, after an incubation period of 15-20 days, neurotoxins are produced that damage the nervous system and cause typical muscular spasms.

Between about 1977 and 1992 Thailand experienced, on a massive scale, thieves cutting off elephants' Tusks by stealth in order to sell them. One result was that many Tuskers contracted tetanus and died.

Path of infection: Infection proceeds from stepping on a piece of metal or other contaminated object that causes a deep wound. With elephants, however, the wound might not be obvious because elephants can and do use their Trunks to gather dirt (which might be contaminated) to stuff in wounds, including cut Tusks. When tetanus enters a tusk's pulp cavity, it spreads very quickly because it thrives in environments where there is no oxygen.

All wounds must, of course, be carefully cleaned but be especially careful where the puncture is from nails or rusty old metal, especially in an area that has long housed many animals. After infection, the disease does not progress quickly and the elephant will appear normal for 15-20 days (sometimes even longer) before symptoms appear. Even if the elephant receives treatment, the survival rate is very low.

Clinical signs:

The elephant often has a temperature of over 37.8° C or 100° F, although this is not certain. The breath will be noticeably hot to feel.

The eyes will be very red, and the soft tissue inside the mouth and the Trunk will be a dark red.

The elephant is listless and does not eat or drink water.

The nervous system is affected, and the leg muscles harden in muscular contraction; the tail has a supple, snake-like feel.

There are periodic spasms, particularly when the elephant is startled, as by a loud noise or bright light.

In following days, it becomes difficult for the elephant to walk and stand because of the contraction of the leg muscles.

The jaws lock tightly, making it difficult to chew food. Eating and drinking become very difficult and the elephant dies.


Consult a veterinarian immediately.

Even though tetanus is not contagious to other elephants, separate the elephant from other animals as it will be more peaceful.

Take the elephant to a shady shelter with a clean surface, such as a concrete floor (it should not be slippery) to prevent it from introducing earth or other unclean materials into the wound or the pulp cavity.

The area should have good ventilation.

In cases of an exposed pulp cavity, it is best to clean it with running tap water through a hose. Wash all wounds thoroughly with clean water then flush with an antiseptic solution such as Betadine or Povidine-iodine 1% in a 20:1 solution. Finally, apply an anti-insect powder that includes an antibiotic, such as Negasunt.

Hand feed the elephant with small amounts of easy to eat foods with high nutritional value, such as ripe bananas, sticky rice, ripe papayas, etc. (See page 22.)

Clean the wound every day.

Prevention: For elephants that have open wounds or exposed pulp cavities in Tusks, prevent the elephant from contracting tetanus by daily cleaning of the wound and by keeping the elephant on a clean surface. Otherwise the elephant is likely to introduce dirt or other unclean material that could contain tetanus germs into the wound.

No vaccine yet exists for elephants but if an elephant with a wound seems to have been exposed to tetanus, a veterinarian can inject an antitoxin to prevent infection from the bacteria.

Elephant care manual for Mahouts and camp managers, Preecha Phuangkum, Richard C. Lair and Taweepoke Angkawanith

(Since this very useful description, there actually IS vaccine available, often in combination of Clostridium/Tetanus)

Reference list Koehl, Dan, (2024). Tetanus. Elephant Encyclopedia, available online retrieved 20 September 2021 at https://www.elephant.se/index.php?id=172. (archived at the Wayback machine)

Sources used for this article is among others:

Selected publications
  • Lair, Richard; Gone astray: The care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity

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Categories glossary | disease

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