Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tetanus Anyone?

Fluid replacement

Several combined decades of farming between Keith and I and you would think we'd seen it all. Not even close. The unusual on our farm often starts with a phone call from husband to wife.

Keith: "You got time to come look at a calf?"

This is not good news. Once when he asked me to come "look at" one of our goats, she had a compound fracture (bone protruding through the skin) after jumping over a fence. Another request to "look at" a goat resulting in him holding her upright, upper limbs in his arms, bottom in my face, while we delivered triplets. It was very cold that day and I almost lost my wedding rings inside that caprines uterus.

Last evening the request to "look at" an animal turned out to be a calf with a third eye.

Yes, the well known third eye phenomenon present in the early stages of Clostridium Tetani bacterial infection, better known as Tetanus or Lock Jaw. Of course it was not well known to me until about 16 hours ago but now I can say the Third Eye and I are well acquainted. Intimate, even.

Keith had found the 4 month old calf standing inside the barn alone, looking not right. Moving him out into the sunshine the calf was able to walk but very stiffly, his tail held out from his body, his head low. The most obvious symptom for us was his "locked jaw." Literally frozen shut.

And then there was that third eye thing, which is the third eyelid located in the corner of the eye, protruding partially across the eye. It looks as if the calves eyes are just rolling around in its head. As Quint said in Jaws  "Y'know, the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes."

Anyway, back to the ranch...Phone calls to the vet proved unhelpful as everyone was gone for the day and the emergency numbers given resulted only in voice mails as well. Even the large vet clinic at the University of Illinois had phone issues and disconnected me three times. It is so rare for us to need our vet that I did not have his number in my phone, Keith however had it in his head.

Knowing time was of the essence I turned to my good buddy Google, learned what I could and after a few more phone calls to find the drugs we needed I set off to Pontiac in a rush before the local farm supply store closed at 8pm.

Once back home, with the calf isolated in a well bedded, quiet and dark box stall I gave him IM injections of Penicillin and Tetanus Antitoxin. Yes, that's right we gave an antibiotic to an animal whose life was in danger just as the National Organic Standards tell us to do. The calf was able to drink a small amount of water, still able to move his lips and did try to eat some hay.

When I got back inside our vet did call (felt very bad he'd been in a meeting, I really do love our vet) and confirmed our initial diagnosis. He also told me we needed to really increase both our antitoxin and penicillin dosages but even so death was very likely for this animal. Seems that Clostridium Tetani  Bacteria  is very virulent. Once it enters an animals blood stream and grows, it releases toxins that affect the animals entire central nervous system.

Within just hours the creature, if untreated, will be laying on its side , limbs out straight, bloating because the rumen freezes up and spasming until death. I told myself I'd euthanize that calf  before I'd witness that level of suffering.

So how did our calf get Tetanus? We think it went down like this. We purchased this calf about a month ago from another Certified Organic Dairy. He's been healthy all along but he had not yet been castrated. Not a huge deal, a little later than we normally do but not terribly so. Keith did band his testicles a week after we brought him home and in normal circumstances over the next few weeks those dangling participles will shrivel up, die and fall off, leaving a very nice well healed and closed wound.

But, we were running six  smaller hogs with a few of these calves and we believe that dangling package was just too tempting a toy and piggies, running under the calves,  may have nibbled on said package. So of like shiny red and green Mistletoe twinkling from up above...hard to resist. This area was injured, opened to the environment and when the calf laid outside on dirt where Clostridium Tetani live, the bacteria had a great opportunity to enter the calves blood stream. On inspection of our calves nether regions we did see a reddened edematous tissue where the testicle had been. Portal sight confirmed.

At 4am Keith said the calf had improved. Lying down but upright. No sign of the third eye and neck muscles more relaxed.

At 8 am this morning his condition declined and we were back where we were last evening when we first discovered him. No worse but no better than 14 hours ago. Another call placed to our vet. Another trip for more meds. Another 2 IM  injections of the Tetanus Antitoxin and another 2 IM injections of Penicillin.

12:45 am. Calf looks better. Moving his neck more. Less of the freaky third eye thing. Not standing (would YOU feel like standing?) but sitting upright and chewing his cud. Jaw muscles looser but still doesn't open. Sometimes he can be heard grinding his teeth. Sensitive to sudden movements, light , noise all due to the CNS irritation.

2:00 pm Keith able to get calf to stand. Very weak, wobbly and stiff but able to suck down another 2 quarts of warm water with electrolytes. Less third eye.

He might just make it. We'll see. If he does we'll raise him for our own supply of beef on The Poor Farm next year.

Lessons learned

1. Do not run pigs with calves immediately after calf castration by banding.
2. Be vigilant in checking calf band castration sites for appropriate healing.
3. Keep Vet numbers, other emergency Vet Numbers in the barn, on our phones.
3. Keep large doses of Tetanus Antitoxin on the farm ( at least 6 of the 5ml vials, 1500 units /5ml)
4. Keep large multi dose vial of Penicillin on the farm ( at least one 100 cc vial, 300,000 units per cc. for life saving only)
5. Document all Tetanus signs and symptoms seen and treatments given for future reference.
6. Be prepared to euthanize animal if symptoms progress.

Cost of Care so Far

8 total vials of Tetanus Antitoxin
     3 at Big R (5 ml/1500 units per 5 ml)  $8.97
     5 from Vet Office (same as above)  $35
2 Vials Injectable Penicillin
     1 from Big R (100 ml/300,000units per ml)  $9
     1 from Vets office (same as above)   11.50
Syringes and needles from Vet for 7 days of PCN treatment   $8.80

Since we'll need to give the PCN for 7 days our total cost of treatment will be about $75 vs the potential loss of meat (at our cost) for our own table of about $1000. All the meds will have over a year to be excreted from his system even though federal law states for conventionally raised beef they can be injected with antibiotics and tetanus antitoxin up until 21 days before slaughter.

Now before you get all bent out of shape about the vets markup on the Tetanus keep in mind, he has staff to pay, and lots of overhead. Plus he returned my call twice and because he knows us and our skills well (Keith, the  very experienced dairyman and me the RN crone) he is comfortable ordering the meds, giving us instructions to treat animals ourselves rather than charging us a $75 visit fee. He offered to come but we were comfortable with the injections/treatment based on his advice. In addition his office is only 10 miles from our farm vs the 35 miles to the farm store. Saves gas and time.

So, will we now vaccinate all our calves with tetanus to prevent future occurrences? No, we won't. In the 30 years that Keith has been working on dairy farms he has never seen tetanus in a calf. We will however change our fairly new practice of running pigs with calves until AFTER any castrated calves are well healed.

Always living, always learning.

Future calf care (keep in mind mortality rate is 80% ) will include daily injections of PCN, lots of extra fluids, with electrolyte replacement plus good hay, to keep him hydrated and maintain nutritional status,  helping him get up to keep circulation and digestion operational, keeping the stall quiet, dark to avoid more CNS insult, lots of dry bedding and as our vet suggested... "Prayer"

Have I mentioned how much we love our vet?



  1. We lost our very first calf born on our farm to tetanus, and he was also infected at his banding site. We now give the antitoxin each time we band, it'll give up to 14 days protection, usually long enough to get them past the danger zone. For anyone who vaccinates at the time of banding and thinking they have protection, the vaccine does take a couple weeks to get to full effectiveness, so you are really still unprotected at the most important time.
    Donna, best of luck with your calf, it looks like you may have caught it in time.

    1. Thanks Michael. I sure have learned a lot about Tetanus in animals since this happened. Now, about 36 hrs after diagnosis the calf is still with us. Not worse, not really better but able to eat and will take small steps towards me for his bottle. Seems moderately comfortable and has a definite will to live.

  2. Thanks Donna, I always wonder what can go wrong with banding. We have been lucky so far. Hope your calf makes it. Sick cattle are hard work!

    1. Yes, he has been work. I'm now feeding him 6 times a day because larger feedings wear him out. But it gets me outside even more and the weather is lovely here in Illinois today!

  3. Thank goodness you guys are so vigilant! That's always half the battle. I don't have animals, but I'm sorta hot for your vet too. :-)

    1. "Hot for your vet too" I am SO telling him you said that!

    2. This post also reminds me - I do a ton of gardening(organic manures)/household repairs (pointy, sometimes rusty stuff) and I'm forever drawing blood. I think it's time for another tetanus shot. Regards to your vet, but I'll let my doc give me the injection. *heh* How about you, Donna. Do you guys get shots?

  4. We just banded one of our goat kids on Monday, thanks for the reminder to keep an eye on it. Good luck with your calf!

    1. Oh sure. Where were YOU when I needed to be told about not running recently castrated calves with hogs?!? Hmmmm. You fair weather blog friends....How I love you!

  5. Did I read that correctly..... 80% mortality rates for calves??? I've NEVER heard of calves dying here!

    1. 80 % mortality for calves who get TETANUS not for all calves you funny guy you. And of course calves never die in France, pumped up with all that good red wine who would want to leave that lovely place?

  6. Ok, I can't stop thinking about this. When you said "Third Eye", I was all like what the HECK?! Is there like a deformity that suddenly pops up with tetanus cases where another eyeball grows someplace on the animal? I almost closed up this blog post in horror and to google "third eyeball tetanus", but thankfully I read on and realized you meant what I would call the Third eyeLID. I was serioiusly worried. Had nightmares about it last night, btw.

    1. Me too! At first I thought like a real third eye showed up in their forehead or something. That's what I get for reading Stephen King for over four decades!

  7. I hope the little guy makes it and am glad you were able to learn so many lessons from this one experience.

    If he doesn't make it, can you use his carcase as feed for some of the other animals or would it be too risky because of the tetanus infection?

    1. Megan, you ask such good questions! If he dies we could only feed his meat to our dogs as they are not certified organic. Anything we feed our other livestock that is certified must be certified as well and since the calf got PCN he automatically lose his organic certification. We can eat his meat if he lives but we can never sell it as organic meat. A confusing little merry go round is it not?

  8. I don't think I took a breath during most of this post. You two are so amazing.

    Those crazy pigs. Need to feed them better.

    1. Yes, we feel amazing...up until the point that we find out we are not. It happen about 7:30 every morning. :) But we do try to share our mistakes with others, our lessons with those who are interested as it makes all of us better farmers.

  9. We lost an older dog a few years back to tetanus. Hell of a way to go. Hope your calf pulls through.

    1. Well woody...he did not. This morning April 20th 5 days after diagnoses he took a real turn for the worse and so we ended his suffering.

  10. Sorry to hear that the calf didn't make it, Donna. But if nothing else, lessons learned all around. Hey, did you read my comment above about human anti-tentanus shots when working around manures? Would appreciate your input on that before I got get punctured.