Although tetanus is much more common in horses than cattle, it can occur in cattle. The bacterium that causes tetanus can survive in the soil for years as it forms a spore to protect it from the elements. If a spore enters a wound, Dr. Harold Newcomb indicates in Bovine Veterinarian that it will start growing rapidly and produce a nervous system toxin that binds to the animal’s nerve endings, which causes spastic paralysis.
Signs of tetanus are difficult to note early in the disease and delayed treatment decreases the chance of survival. Calves with tetanus walk stiffly and sometimes will have their third eyelid exposed all the time, thus covering part of their eyeballs.
The most likely cause of tetanus in calves is when they are castrated using the elastrator or banding method; in fact, all three cases I have seen in calves were related to castrating large calves with an elastrator band. The elastrator method causes the scrotal tissue and testicle to die and they fall off due to lack of blood supply. However, this lack of blood supply sets up an environment without oxygen in the scrotum area and the tetanus organism grows when there isn’t any oxygen. Chances of tetanus are less if calves are banded when they are young because the scrotum dies and falls off sooner; if you are going to use an elastrator to band calves for castration, it is better to do it when they are less than 3 months old. If the calf is surgically castrated, you need to remove the scrotal skin at a 45-degree angle to allow drainage and turn the calves out to pasture as it is much cleaner. If you have had cases of tetanus in your cattle or you band calves for castration, consider the tetanus vaccine that is effective at preventing the disease but is certainly not indicated in every herd.