Fixing broken legs in calves–Just like new

Young calves sometimes fracture a limb, which must be cast or splinted for proper healing. Robert Cope DVM (veterinarian in Salmon, Idaho for 44 years) has cast and splinted hundreds of broken legs. “To get the bone set correctly, it must be supported so it’s not weight-bearing, and wrapped tightly so there’s no movement. It’s easiest and most successful when we can keep the calf from moving and struggling while we do it. I use a tiny bit of tranquilizer (about 1/12 cc of Rompum). This knocks them out for about an hour, which gives enough time for what you need to do with the leg,” says Cope.

To immobilize the leg, he starts with a stockinette (soft, loosely-knitted stretchy fabric) over the leg, pads it with cotton, wrapping with Vet-wrap to hold it securely in place, then uses fiberglass vet-casting tape to create a cast. Generally one 6-inch roll of “instant cast” tape is enough to do the job.

This will immobilize a fracture below the knee or hock. “Breaks above the knee or hock are difficult because you must stabilize the joints above and below the fracture. It’s hard to do that with the stifle or elbow unless you use a special crutch splint. The good news is that most fractures are on the lower leg—from being stepped on, or having a chain slip when pulling a calf—and those heal quickly,” says Cope.

Young bones are growing so fast that they can heal even if the ends are displaced. “There’s a saying in pediatric orthopedics in humans, that if the bone fragments are in the same room they will eventually reach each other. If you get them fairly close together and reasonably straight, they heal in about 3 weeks. I like to leave the cast on a little longer, to be safe, but you must allow for growth of the calf—and not have the cast get too tight,” he explains.

“Sometime between 2 and 3 weeks, I ‘zonk’ the calf out again (so he won’t be struggling) and cut the cast down the side. This makes a clam-shell effect so you can open it a little to provide more room for the growing leg, and tape it back together. Then you can give it another 2 weeks and remove the cast, and the leg is healed,” he says.

If a rancher must do emergency splinting to stabilize a broken leg until the vet can apply a cast, Cope says this can be accomplished using a lot of cotton and pressure from an ace bandage. “Then the important thing is to keep the calf calm and quiet so he’s not trying to move around much—to reduce risk for compounding that fracture (pushing the broken bone or a bone fragment through the skin),” he explains.

If bone comes through the skin, opening the way for contamination and infection, you have a serious problem. “Compound fractures on cattle are almost always fatal, even with antibiotics, since bone infections are difficult to treat,” he says.

The best type of splint is simply layers and layers of padding, since it’s difficult to create an adequate splint with something solid like wood or PVC pipe cut lengthwise. “PVC pipe works great to resolve contracted tendons—newborn calves with fetlock joints knuckled under, walking on the front of the joint. You can pad that leg with cotton and encase it in PVC pipe from the back of the heel to somewhere above the fetlock. The PVC cut lengthwise supports the leg, keeping the joint straight so the calf can put weight on the toes. The weight of the calf will stretch the tendons and straighten the leg.”

It’s harder to make PVC pipe work for a splint to support a fracture, because you need the right size pipe that really fits the leg. “Generally the pipe is too small or too big. It’s almost never the right size.” Unless it’s a good fit it may do more harm than good.

“Sometimes we use what’s called a Robert Jones bandage, and all it consists of is a lot of cotton in a really tight wrap. This can stabilize a fracture pretty well, even better than a splint. Wood or PVC is awkward to use, whereas the bandage wraps fit perfectly and snugly,” he explains.

The best padding/packing is roll cotton, but if you don’t have cotton you could use small soft towels. “The trick is to have a lot of tight padding. It can’t be loose, and you must apply it clear down over the hoof so you don’t cut off blood circulation at the coronary band. Put on one layer and wrap it tight with Vet Wrap or an ace bandage, then apply more padding over that, and wrap it tight with another ace bandage or Vet Wrap, then another,” he says. Then it’s solid and secure and can’t slop around and get loose. If you use multiple layers with multiple wraps it works well.

The padding is soft against the leg, but very solid. “You can make this kind of wrap almost as hard/solid as a cast. This will stabilize the leg for a few days if necessary, but then you need your vet to apply a cast. It’s almost impossible to loosen this wrap (to allow for leg growth) without taking it completely off. If you have to take it clear off to reapply it, the unsupported leg is at risk if the calf struggles while you’re trying to do it. But after your vet puts a cast on the leg, you can later cut it lengthwise (for enlargement) and leave it on, to keep the leg stable.”

A calf with bandage or cast must be in a dry place; otherwise it will wick moisture if the calf walks in mud or water. The cotton or stockinette gets soggy and pulls moisture up into it.”

ONE RANCHER’S EXPERIENCE – Andrea Daine’s family ranches near Baker, Idaho. In the past 25 years they’ve had several broken legs in young calves. “The first was a newborn calf, born in January. The mom stepped on its hind leg and broke it before the calf got up. We had to hold the calf up, next to the cow, for it to nurse, then called our vet. We tried to make a splint to stabilize the leg until he got here, but it didn’t work very well,” says Daine.

“Our vet, Jeff Hoffman, put a fiberglass cast on the leg and wrapped it with Vet Wrap to help keep it clean and dry, and we put the pair in the barn. They lived in there several weeks. We watered the cow twice a day and took the tub back out of the stall so the calf wouldn’t walk in it and get the cast wet,” says Daine.

When the calf was 3 weeks old they sliced the cast lengthwise down the outside, to make more room for the growing leg, and used duct tape and Vet Wrap to secure it again. The leg healed nicely; that calf grew up to become a good cow.

“The second fracture was when a young calf got stepped on while the cows were running around one night, harassed by wolves. The break was above the hock, however, and impossible to cast. Dr. Hoffman improvised, using a plastic dog splint in the shape of the hind leg, putting it against the leg with padding under it, then used many wraps of adhesive bandage. It worked, and that leg healed beautifully, too,” says Daine.

“Our most recent experience was a few years ago when a calf’s hind leg broke during an accident while branding—getting caught on at a bad angle on the calf table. On that one, our vet just used multiple layers of padding and elastic wrap. The leg had a knot on it after it healed, but as the calf grew up that lump became less obvious and the leg was fine,” she says.