Tetanus in Rabbits (Lapis) | Vetlexicon
lapis - Articles


ISSN 2398-2969


  • Cause: effect of a potent neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium tetani.
  • Signs: abnormal behavior, muscle spasms and rigidity, respiratory problems, death.
  • Diagnosis: detection of neurotoxin (tetanospasmin).
  • Treatment: anti-toxin, antibiotics, vaccination, muscle relaxants, supportive care.
  • Prognosis: guarded.

Presenting signs

  • Clinical signs may vary depending on factors such as dose of toxin and route of entry, and may include behavioral changes, walking with hindlimbs extended (tip-toe), tetanic spasms, reluctance to move, difficulty eating/drinking, convulsions, circling, spastic paralysis, increased respiratory effort, limb extension/spasms, prostration, death.

Acute presentation

  • Despite the incubation period, clinical signs may present relatively acutely, progressing to full symptomatology in hours.

Geographic incidence

  • Clostridium tetani is ubiquitous, but prefers environments with a temperature of at least 20°C/68°F and 15% humidity; such requirements may limit presence and growth in cold areas, eg Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland. Actually, the incidence of tetanus in humans is higher in warmer areas.

Age predisposition

  • None reported in rabbits, but in other species tetanus appears to be more severe in younger animals.

Gender predisposition

  • Gender predisposition has not been reported in rabbits, but entire males (particularly when they are held together) are more aggressive, which could cause wounds and secondary tetanus.

Breed/Species predisposition

  • Rabbits have an intermediate susceptibility to tetanus. No differences in breed susceptibility have been reported in rabbits.
  • Direct CNS injection of the toxin produces the same signs in different species, meaning that the difference in susceptibility between species (see Table 1) may be related to the way the toxin travels or binds to receptors in each different species.
Animal Susceptibility
Horse 1
Guinea pig 2
Human 3
Mouse 12
Rabbit 24
Dog 600
Cat 7200
Chicken 360000

Table 1. Relative susceptibility of animals to tetanus toxin. Number 1 indicates the more susceptible (the horse) and birds such as chicken are considered resistant.

Public health considerations

  • There have been reports of tetanus in people suffering from wounds caused by rabbits, eg scratches, but tetanus is not a transmissible disease. 

Cost considerations

  • Depends on severity:
    • Moderate cost in mildly affected rabbits. Cost includes diagnostic tests, specific treatment and short hospitalization.
    • Therapy for severely affected animals may be prolonged, costly and time consuming. Hospitalization of such cases may approach a month.

Special risks

  • Tetanus also affects the respiratory muscles, and many affected animals die from asphyxiation. Anesthesia of such cases is risky and requires endotracheal intubation, assisted ventilation and close monitoring of all respiratory parameters.



  • Clostridium tetani Clostridium tetani are anaerobic, Gram-positive, spore-forming rods, ubiquitous in nature, and spores can survive for years in the environment.
  • The germination of spores of C. tetani produces tetanospasmin, the causative agent of tetanus.

Predisposing factors


  • Clostridium tetani is ubiquitous and proliferates in anaerobic environments, such as necrotic tissue of penetrating wounds, the umbilicus of neonates, or the uterus during dystocia. In such anaerobic environments, the vegetative growth of the spores of C. tetani, ie spore germination, produces tetanospasmin.
  • Tetanus can also be observed as a complication of foreign bodies, broken dentition, postoperatively, or after parturition.


  • Wounds in parts of the body that are in contact with soil are more likely to become contaminated and be the route of entry for the spores of the organism.
  • Parturition in dirty environments may facilitate infection of the umbilical cord and neonatal tetanus. However, difficult deliveries as a cause of tetanus in females are extremely unlikely in the rabbit.
  • Deep wounds are more likely to create anaerobic conditions.


  • Tetanus develops when spores are introduced into wounds or penetrating injuries. Such spores have vegetated or will vegetate in response to the anaerobic conditions present in the site of injury (abscess, necrosis, deep wound, etc).
  • Tetanospasmin enters the body from the wound and reaches peripheral nerves via endocytosis; then (in generalized cases) travels to the spinal cord, where it blocks neurotransmission in inhibitory neurons, leading to clinical signs of muscle spasms and rigidity. From the spinal cord, it can reach the brain.
  • If tetanospasmin enters the blood stream directly, it can spread hematogenously and enter the central nervous system. In fact, systemic intravenous administration usually results in intracranial signs (convulsions, respiratory arrest) before development of generalized limb rigidity. Tetanospasmin can cross the blood-CNS barrier. Blood can also carry the toxin to other peripheral neurons, from where the same pattern of ascension to spinal cord/brain is seen.
  • The toxin is destroyed by gastric juices and does not enter the placenta.
  • Tetanospasmin inhibits the release of GABA-neurotransmitters in inhibitory interneurons of the brain and spinal cord. The binding of tetanus toxin to presynaptic sites of these inhibitory neurons is irreversible; recovery depends on sprouting of new axon terminals.
  • There are four recognized presentations of tetanus:
    • Localized tetanus, with clinical signs limited to the site of infection.
    • Generalized tetanus characterized by extreme, diffuse muscle rigidity.
    • Neonatal tetanus from umbilical cord infections.
    • Cephalic tetanus associated with otitis media.
  • The site and route of administration of toxin are important in determining the type of disease that develops.
  • Localized tetanus is more common in resistant species, eg dog/cat, where the toxin has more problems spreading through the body and into the CNS.


  • Not properly reported in rabbits, but incubation period in other mammal species varies from one day to more than a month, and depends on level of immunity, size of inoculum, and location and nature of the primary wound.
  • As a general rule, clinical signs usually occur a few days after receiving a wound. Incubation period is shorter when the wound is close to the CNS, has numerous organisms, and has a more anaerobic environment.


  • Unknown, as natural infection with tetanus in rabbits is not well studied despite the fact that rabbits have been used for more than 100 years as a laboratory model of tetanus infection.


Subscribe To View

This article is available to subscribers.

Try a free trial today or contact us for more information.


Subscribe To View

This article is available to subscribers.

Try a free trial today or contact us for more information.


Subscribe To View

This article is available to subscribers.

Try a free trial today or contact us for more information.


Subscribe To View

This article is available to subscribers.

Try a free trial today or contact us for more information.

Further Reading


Refereed papers

  • Recent references from PubMed and VetMedResource.
  • Anderson K, Keller J, Ramachandran A et al (2020) Naturally occurring tetanus in a rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) associated with Psoroptes cuniculi otitis. J Exotic Pet Med 35 (3), 41-43 PubMed.
  • Popoff M R (2020) Tetanus in animals. J Vet Diag Invest 32 (2), 184-191 PubMed.
  • Suri J C & Rubbo S D (1961) Immunization against tetanus. J Hyg Camb 59, 29-48.
  • Wright E A (1953) The effect of the injection of tetanus toxin into the central nervous system of rabbits. J Immunol 71 (2), 41-44 PubMed.

Other sources of information

  • Greene C E (2012) Tetanus. In: Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. 4th edn. Ed: Greene C E. Elsevier, USA. pp 423-431.
  • Rideout B A (2003) Clostridial Diseases in all Taxa. In: Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine. 5th edn. Eds: Fowler M E & Miller E R. Saunders Elsevier, USA. pp 712-718.