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Dealing with broken bones in young calves

For a young calf with a hind leg fractured above the hock, a dog splint may be all you need

Occasionally a young calf suffers a fractured limb, which needs to be cast or splinted for proper healing. Accidents sometimes occur, such as the cow stepping on her calf and breaking a leg. You might not see it happen, and just find the calf unable to get up, or very lame. You might discover the broken leg after the cows were frantically running around trying to find and protect their calves when the herd is harassed by dogs, coyotes or wolves.

Young calves are often injured in this type of trampling accident.

Broken legs in newborn calves usually fall into two categories — “mama trauma” in which the calf got stepped on, and the other involve a broken limb while the calf is being pulled during birth.

Injuries during birth

To prevent the latter injury, it is important to use proper pulling technique. Applying the chains properly involves using a double half-hitch with one loop above and one below the fetlock joint (on the pastern) to spread the force so it isn’t all in one place. Pulling injuries tend to have more damage to the blood and nerve supply to the leg. The prognosis for a calf that gets its leg broken while pulling it is often worse than for a calf that gets its leg stepped on, says Mark Hilton, a veterinarian with Purdue University.

Some fractures are more easily repaired than others. “Usually when a young calf suffers a broken leg, it’s broken at the growth plate at the end of the long bone,” says Hilton. “When it’s broken at the growth plate it tends to break straight across. If you can get the leg realigned and set the fracture, these often respond very well in a cast or splint. There’s a lot of stability, once you get the fracture set, and the calf can walk on it. The purpose of the cast or splint is to prevent bending.”

If the fracture is above the growth plate, it’s generally better to use a cast than a splint. The cast can share weight with the leg. “Splints are great for maintaining alignment of the limb, but if you have to also support some of the weight, a cast is more effective,” he says.

Splints designed for high limb injuries can sometimes work to immobilize the leg enough for it to heal. A plastic dog splint, for instance, wrapped with stretchy tape to hold it in place, may be adequate to support a high break on a hind limb (holding it immobile) in a very young calf. An older calf, carrying more weight, may not have such a good prognosis for a high break, according to Hilton.

Dog splint can work

calf with a dog splint
This is what is commonly referred to as a dog splint, which is helpful in repairing leg breaks above the hock. photo: Heather Smith Thomas

But for a young calf with a hind leg fractured above the hock, a dog splint may be all you need. You can get one of these from your vet; just select the proper size for the calf’s hind leg. Place the splint over the leg to make sure it’s the right size, then use some padding like roll cotton between the leg and the splint. Wrap it with stretchy tape to hold the splint in place, with enough layers to make it solid and stable. If you are successful in creating an adequate support, the calf will be able to walk on it and get up and around to nurse its mother. The leg should heal completely within two to three weeks if there are no complications, but you may have to redo it once if the bandaging becomes too tight on a fast-growing calf.

As long as the blood supply is intact and the calf doesn’t get an infection in the injured area, those fractures usually heal very well in newborn calves if you can control the weight-bearing force. Young calves’ bones heal more quickly than those of an older animal, especially if you can support the fracture properly.

“Success rate is high, in those that are not open fractures, without infections,” says Hilton. “It will depend somewhat on whether the break is high or low on the leg. If it’s low we can usually just splint it, though some veterinarians cast those, too.”

Often a piece of PVC pipe works as a splint, cut lengthwise so you can use just half of it. Rolled cotton can be put between the pipe and the limb to pad it.

“If it’s a hind leg you can use a propane torch and heat the PVC pipe to bend it, so it will curve at the hock, at the same angle as the leg,” says Hilton. “We heat the half pipe at the proper spot and push the end of the pipe on the ground until we get the correct angle. Then we just hold it for a couple minutes at that angle until it cools, and it stays that way. Here at our hospital we have various lengths of half pipes, pre-cut and bent, and just grab one when we go out to work on a calf’s leg,” he says.

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