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Fixing fractures in cattle is doable

Early attention to treatment can often get the critter back on its feet

A calf with a fiberglass cast.

Accidents happen. Sometimes a cow steps on her calf, breaking its leg, or a limb fractures due to extensive or improper pressure applied during a difficult calving.

Veterinarian Eric Laporte, with the Bonnyville Clinic at Bonnyville, northeast of Edmonton, says he doesn’t see as many dystocia-related fractures now as in the past, due to better education and awareness in proper methods of pulling calves.

“The sooner a fracture can be assessed, the better,” says Laporte. “I take an X-ray if possible to see if it affects the growth plates, and assess damage to the bone — whether there are a lot of small fragments or if it’s a clean break. We utilize pain management for these procedures. In Canada we have meloxicam (Metacam) approved for cattle.”

Sedatives also help to keep the calf quiet/immobile while setting the leg (if the break is displaced) and while applying a cast.

Laporte says young calves heal amazingly well, even if the bone is not perfectly in place, but heals better and more quickly if the fracture is set correctly. The sooner the calf can be treated, the better.

“The longer you leave it, the higher the risk for more tissue damage,” he says. “Especially if the break is higher up the leg, with muscle damage. If the skin hasn’t been broken, there’s also less chance for infection, and a better prognosis.”

Decisions have to be made

It takes diligence to deal with an open fracture until it heals, but most producers will handle it if their veterinarian is on board to help.

“If there is a situation where the veterinarian is not willing to help, then the producer may seek a different veterinarian or euthanize the calf,” Laporte says. “And then of course they wonder if they might have been able to save that calf if they’d tried.

“Often these decisions (about course of treatment) are financial, but in the cattle business it’s also about welfare of the animal. Most ranchers try to save the calf. One animal might not pay for itself after extensive care, but in the grand scheme of things, and because we want to do the right thing, producers generally want to try. These are living creatures and we have a responsibility to them. Livestock production today is in the public eye and we want to save the animal and have a good outcome.”

Laporte says with improved materials it’s much easier today to splint or cast a broken leg.

“We can use fibreglass and other materials that are light and hold up under pressure. I’ve been able to resolve growth plate fractures even in heavier animals, such as an 800-pound heifer. This was the farmer’s daughter’s 4-H heifer and she didn’t want to send it to slaughter.”

A young calf heals quickly because bones are actively growing, and there’s not much weight on them, but even the adult animal’s ability to heal is remarkable, when given a chance.

“The younger the animal, and the lower the fracture is on the leg, the better the prognosis,” says Laporte

Fractures above the knee or hock can be more challenging. There are special splints such as a Thomas-Schroeder splint that can be used based on veterinarian advice.

“Early intervention is important,” says Laporte. “Getting a clean towel around it (to keep it clean and protect it) and using something to hold it in place and wrap it, can be helpful.”

A splint can be created from PVC pipe cut lengthwise, putting the two pieces around the towel-wrapped leg, and securing everything with strong tape. This may immobilize the break until the veterinarian can assess it.

Consult a veterinarian

“If the producer has a working relationship with a veterinarian and has pain medication on hand, some of these cases can be dealt with as first aid on the ranch,” Laporte says. If there is skin damage, the hair can be clipped away and the wound cleaned with disinfectant soap. The calf can be given antibiotics and the leg splinted. Even if you can’t get the calf to the veterinarian right away, advice can often be given over the phone.

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