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Dealing with contracted or lax leg tendons in calves

Animal Health: In many cases, time and a bit of physiotherapy will fix the condition

It is not uncommon during calving season for producers to end up with calves with contracted tendons (knuckling over) or the complete opposite — cases of lax tendons whereby the back of the fetlock is touching the ground. Although it is difficult to prevent these abnormalities, fortunately they only occur sporadically. Even so it is important to know how to manage them successfully and when to intervene.

Generally the knuckling over we see occurs in bigger raw-boned calves or weaker calves (twins). Whether it is lack of room in the uterus or simply long bones that have grown faster than the tendons, calves will knuckle over (especially on the front legs). This occurs in varying degrees from slight knuckling to those where the fetlock is bent over at 90 degrees.

The tendency for many producers is to splint these or have them cast. My experience is that most will get stronger with time if left. Some physiotherapy in the form of physically extending the toe to stretch the tendon will do some good. Casts or splints immobilize the area well, but don’t allow it to strengthen.

Fixing severe cases

To encourage healing of contracted tendons on their own, keep the calf area well bedded and be ever-vigilant of pressure sores developing on the front of the fetlock from rubbing as the calf walks. If this occurs a protective padded bandage needs to be applied. Every time you see the calf, help place the foot in the natural position and over time in 95 per cent of the cases the problem will resolve.

Another problem with splints is pressure sores can develop and movement is greatly restricted. This restriction may make it hard for the calf to stand or suckle, predisposing it to other infectious problems.

The front of the toes can be rasped a bit so long as they do not continually catch on the ground. This tips the toes in the right direction and with time and exercise the condition often reverses.

In foals with contracted tendons tetracycline antibiotics are given intravenously. The theory is the antibiotics bind up the calcium, reducing the growth of the long bones, allowing the tendons to catch up.

I have tried this in these calves with some success but it is not scientifically proven. When stretching out the foot you will feel the tendons at the back of the foot become extremely taut and this is what must lengthen in order to allow the leg to straighten.

With severe contracted tendons (the ones where the foot is bent 90 degrees underneath), surgical intervention may be necessary. A local anaesthetic is applied and a small incision is made over the tendons. An instrument called a tenotome (like a thick scalpel) is used to partially sever the tendons to bring the foot around. The veterinarian must be careful not to overdue the cutting and have the toe become overextended and the opposite problem develops. The leg is still left slightly contracted and over time this will stretch and resolve. This is obviously a veterinary procedure.

I believe with good nutrition and a lot smaller calves born these days we see fewer and fewer of these contracted tendons or knuckling over. With hard pulls some swelling and nerve damage may increase the likelihood of knuckling. These generally are the larger calves and they may have knuckled anyway. Pulling on backwards calves can result in this same nerve damage so always double-wrap chains when pulling to spread out the force and minimize any swelling. With harder pulls, anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed by your veterinarian.

Walking on fetlocks

The opposite problem of lax tendons results in calves walking on the backs of their fetlocks. This may result in pressure sores on the back of the fetlock and bandaging again may be necessary. Keep calves in a well-bedded area and the tincture of time will generally resolve most of these issues. Backwards calves may have this laxity evident on their back legs possibly from overextension in utero. The best comparison I can draw is with a lot of newborn foals this laxity is very dramatic and within a few days they are normal. Time is your best friend in these cases

Patience and not rushing into external devices or surgery is the best advice I can give. Time will correct most of these problems. Different nutritional supplements have been looked at, but as far as I am aware nothing is conclusive as to their benefit.

Only put on external devices such as splints under the advice of your veterinarian as often they cause more harm than good. Calves with these contracted or lax tendons have difficulty rising and standing so be absolutely sure they suckle quickly and get the first feed of colostrum within the first six hours of birth. Some pairs may need to be isolated so you can keep an eye on the calf for a few days but most times you will be rewarded for your efforts. The majority of these calves will go on be very viable calves so a little time and patience initially will often result in a very satisfactory outcome.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

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