Dealing with broken bones in calves
January 11, 2018
Maybe it's a baby calf packing a leg after feeding time one day. Or a calf takes a tumble running across the pasture and refuses to put weight on a leg.
These breaks can heal with a little TLC, especially in younger calves. Dr. Dave Barz, Northwest Veterinary and Supply, Parkston, South Dakota says the good thing about a broken leg in a calf is that young animals heal better than older cattle. There's less weight to support, and the bones in a young, growing animal create new bone growth rapidly. "Expectancy for recovery is a lot better in a small calf than a 1200-pound cow," he says. Calves' bones are growing, and can knit faster.
In addition to the accidents that cause broken bones, sometimes bones are more fragile because of a nutritional deficiency. If a rancher sees more than the occasional broken leg, something like copper deficiency might be suspected. "You need to check mineral levels, because if cattle are deficient in certain minerals the bones may not develop as rapidly as they should," Barz says.
The bones of any young calf are fairly soft and less mineralized, however, and not as strong as those of an older animal. "With maturity, the bones gain density, and can withstand a lot of force. Fractures are fairly common in young animals, just because the bones are not as strong."
Dr. Russ Daly, extension veterinarian/professor, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Science, South Dakota State University, says several factors determine whether fracture treatment will be successful. "One of the main factors is location of the fracture, whether it is high or low on the leg. Fortunately, many limb fractures in young calves occur just above the fetlock joint," he says.
Most of those heal readily if properly stabilized, but a fracture of the femur or humerus (the bones above the stifle and elbow) are more challenging. "Veterinarians are taught that for proper bone healing, we need to immobilize the joints above and below the break. You can't do that when it's near the hip or the shoulder," Daly says. In a young animal, these may heal if the animal can be strictly confined, with pain management, but the risk of a non-healing fracture is much higher in these cases.
Chances of success diminish if the break is a compound fracture, with the bone poking through the skin. That introduces lots of opportunity for infection, which has to be treated for and guarded against.
"It's not impossible to save the calf, but these usually require more heroic efforts to treat potential infection that might make healing impossible. Usually we consider it a poor prognosis and talk with the owner about what's best for the animal," Daly says.
Barz says a splint is even more important in that situation because of the chance of further contamination. A splint can help keep the open wound out of the manure.
Dr. Bill Lias, Interstate Vet Clinic, Brandon, South Dakota, says he's had some open fractures heal, due to the toughness of the calf and good care—with antibiotics and a good cast or splint. "Surprisingly, some of those calves do fine, so I don't give up on them. They sometimes amaze us with their ability to heal."
Lias says it's easier for cattle to recover sufficiently for their purposes than horses, for instance.
"We don't require cattle to be athletes; we just need them to heal and make market weight, so it doesn't matter if a leg heals with a blemish. Having the bone perfectly set is not as important, as long as the leg is functional after it heals, so the calf can get around and make it to the feed bunk or become a brood cow," he says.
Put the animal in a clean, dry, confined area where it's not likely to create more damage/injury to the bone. "You don't want a lot of activity and weight-bearing until it heals," says Barz.
"Baby calves, even though they like to run and buck, are also content to lie in a certain spot where their mother parks them, like a fawn. A very young calf with a broken leg will be content in confinement. Thus the best chance for success is with a good splint or cast to immobilize the break with good padding that doesn't restrict blood circulation, and limiting the calf's activity for the first days while it starts to heal." Most of these fractures heal perfectly, and the calf will go on to lead a normal life.
Prompt first-aid is important, and this may include a phone conversation with the veterinarian for advice on how to protect or splint the leg. Sometimes these can be dealt with adequately at home but having a veterinarian apply a cast or splint is the best option, according to Daly. "For repair to be successful, you need a rigid support for the leg. Veterinarians have access to some lightweight, strong materials that allow calves to still get around while they are healing," he says.
The rancher can often support the broken leg and keep it from being damaged farther until the veterinarian can examine it and put on a cast if needed, and sometimes what the rancher creates as a splint will be adequate without a cast. "A 'soft cast' is a way the rancher can take care of it," say Daly. "Usually those injuries are in the lower leg and can be supported fairly easily. It's more of a problem if the fracture is in the upper leg like the hip or shoulder. We can make a specialized splint for those but the rancher would need help with that."
Lias usually uses a fiberglass cast because it's quick and easy to apply, but sees a lot of producers being successful with a piece of PVC cut lengthwise, padded and secured with duct tape.
Barz recommends keeping a first aid kit in the barn during calving season, including splint materials.
He suggests roll cotton for padding, and Vetrap to secure the cotton before using more Vetrap to splint the leg to a piece of 2-inch diameter PVC, cut lengthwise into thirds. "The advantage of using plastic pipe (padded with cotton or even a soft towel around the leg itself) is that you can wrap pretty tightly around it because there is soft padding between it and the leg. The pipe is usually wider than the leg and allows for circulation," says Barz.
He sometimes uses the felt from a cheap saddle pad for padding, cutting it into strips and wrapping it around the leg.
Heating the pipe with a torch can enable the producer to bend the pipe around the hock in a rear leg, so the splint can go from the stifle to the ground, keeping the calf's weight on the splint, rather than the broken leg.
On a front leg the splint should go from the ground to the elbow.
Barz said a board and electrical tape is sometimes the go-to, but the electrical tape doesn't allow for enough circulation and can often do more harm than good.
Not making the splint long enough is another common problem.
"Don't just wrap the broken spot. The splint/cast needs to go all the way to the ground (to help take weight) and up past the next joint." Barz says.
It is important to splint the break as soon as possible. "Often we are dealing with calves that are very young. They must be able to stand up, to suckle the cow. If you can get them up, they manage. I've seen calves where both front legs were broken and they can still get up and suckle if you immobilize the break." Barz says. Calves are agile and can get and down and move around with a cast or splint, if you can keep the fractured area protected and immobilized.
"If you get that on properly, that may be adequate and this is all the calf will need, if it's not a compound fracture coming through the skin," Barz said. "Simple fractures on a lower leg have more than 80 percent chance for full recovery if you get them immobilized enough. If it's an injury from calving chains being too tight around the bone, however, this disrupts the circulation if there is too much crushing and tissue damage, and this may hinder proper healing. The circulation in the bone is different from other areas of the body. It takes a lot of blood flow around it, to enable it to heal."
Barz recommends leaving the cast or splint on for a month. "Even if you can get three weeks before it starts to get loose, the leg will generally be healed enough, but a month is better." The broken bone ends don't even have to be perfectly lined up; they will grow back together and remodel. Even if it has a lump on it after you take the cast off, by the time the animal grows up you will never notice it.
In addition to broken bones, sometimes newborn calves have issues with ligaments and tendons. If those are severely contracted, the calf may have trouble walking. "Typically, in the front leg, if the calf is able to put weight on the toe—walking on the toe—and the fetlock joint is not knuckling forward, the tendons will stretch and the calf will do fine," says Lias. "If it's tipping forward and the calf is walking on the front of the fetlock joint, wearing it raw, the leg should be splinted so it has to bear weight on the toe. Then it will stretch out over time and correct itself."