Most broken legs in cattle can be repaired economically and with a good prognosis, contrary to what many producers think.
Several times each spring I receive calls about calves with broken legs. We discuss the location of the break and the size of the calf. Producers are often shocked when I say it can be repaired with up to a 90 percent success rate. Young calves are growing rapidly and developing lots of bone so healing is in their favour.
Most breaks happen right around calving. We used to see a lot of pulling injuries. These breaks generally occur just above the fetlock and are crushing injuries, sometimes resulting in damage to the blood supply to the lower leg.
Fortunately most producers are more diligent now about pulling. Especially with harder pulls, make sure to double loop the chains. This spreads the force and minimizes the possibility of breaking a leg. We now see few pulling breaks.
The lower the break, on either the front or back legs, the easier it is to repair.
Breaks below the hock on the back legs or carpus on the front legs are generally cast. These days, fiberglass material allows veterinarians to apply a cast that is lightweight, strong and waterproof.
Experience teaches us to provide enough cast padding to prevent pressure sores.
Usually the cast is cut off in three to four weeks and the break is completely healed.
Most breaks occur lower on the leg from calves being stepped on. Cast material will support the weight of calves right up to mature weight. On larger cattle we use more material, creating a slightly thicker cast.
Follow the veterinarian’s directions regarding the time of removal. If left on too long, young calves will start to grow out of the cast, creating pressure sores.
To avoid confusion, we write the anticipated date for removal on the cast in large black letters.
Have calves with broken legs attended to as soon as possible. By trying to stand on a broken leg, the calf runs the risk of compounding the injury, forcing bone through the skin. If broken ends rub against each other, the periosteum (thin outer surface of the bone) is rubbed off. This will create bone deposition.
If the break is unstable, protect it with a towel or disposable diaper during transport. Cover the wound to prevent contamination of any compound break. If straw or dirt has entered the wound, the prognosis for saving the leg is grim.
For breaks higher up the leg, veterinarians often apply Thomas Shroeder splints. These are commonly used on tibial breaks and less commonly on radius and ulnar breaks.
Schroeder splints immobilize the joints below and above the break and the calf simply drags the splinted leg until healing has occurred.
Keep a close eye on these calves for a few days because it takes that long for some calves to learn how to lie down and get up with the splint on.
Be cautious in weather -15 C or colder. Calves with splints may not be able to lay down properly with their legs under their bodies. Exposed limbs are subject to frostbite even though the cast or splint provides some insulation. Calves may need to be kept inside during cold nights.
Breaks high on the limbs are rare. That is fortunate, because they are difficult to repair. Femoral breaks require internal fixation in the form of pins and wires or plates. These are more costly procedures because anesthetic with surgery is necessary.
Such techniques might be undertaken for valuable purebred calves or pet animals. The humerus, the large bone at top of front leg, can sometimes heal with restricted pen rest. Quiet cattle may tolerate this and can heal.
If handled properly, the vast majority of broken legs will heal well and the calf can go on to be a productive animal.
Check with a veterinarian before giving up on any calf with a broken leg, regardless of its size. Most can be helped.
Roy Lewis is a veterinarian in Westlock, Alta.