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Repairing Broken Legs

Contrary to what producers think most broken legs in calves can be repaired economically and with a very good prognosis in most cases. Several times each spring I receive calls from producers over calves with a broken leg. We discuss the location of the break, how big the calf is and other details, and they are often a bit shocked when I say it can be repaired with up to a 90 per cent success rate. Young calves are growing rapidly putting down lots of bone so healing is in our favour.


Most breaks of course happen right around calving. It used to be we would 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 being more diligent about pulling. Especially with harder pulls, make sure and double loop the chains. This spreads out the force and minimizes any possibility of breaking a leg. With this technique, we now see very few pulling breaks.

The lower down the break (either the front or back legs) the easier it is to repair. Any breaks below the hock on the back legs or carpus on the front legs are generally cast. The beauty these days is fiberglass cast material allows veterinarians to apply a cast that is lightweight, extremely strong and waterproof. Experience teaches us to apply the coreect amount of cast padding to prevent pressure sores from developing.

Most of these calves have the cast cut off in three to four weeks resulting in complete healing.


The majority of breaks occur lower down, caused by calves being stepped on. This cast material will support the weight of any calves right up to mature weight. We just use more material creating a slightly thicker cast on larger cattle. Make sure and follow your veterinarian’s directions diligently as to the time of removal. Young calves if cast too long will literally start to grow out of the cast creating large pressure sores. To avoid confusion we write with a large black marker, right on the cast, the day we want the calf returned for cast removal.

You want to have calves with broken legs attended to a soon as possible. Calves, by trying to stand on a broken leg, run the risk of the bone compounding out through the skin. Rubbing of the broken ends against each other scrapes off the periosteum (thin outer surface of the bone), which is where bone deposition comes from. For very unstable breaks: during transport they can be protected by a towel or disposable diaper wrapped around the site. Compound breaks must have the wound covered and have minimum contamination. If straw and other dirt gets into the wound the prognosis for saving the leg is very grim indeed.


For breaks higher up the legs, Thomas Shroeder splints are often applied by veterinarians. These splints are commonly used on tibial breaks and less commonly on radius or ulnar breaks. These splints immobilize the joints below and above the break and the calf simply drags the splint around until healing has occurred. Keep a close eye on these calves for a few days as it takes that long for some calves to learn how to lie down and get up with the splint on.

A big word of caution in very cold weather (-15 C or colder) be cognizant of the fact these calves may not be able to lay down properly with their legs under their bodies. These exposed limbs are very subject to frostbite even though the cast or splint provides some insulative value. They may need to be kept in over the cold nights.


Fortunately breaks very high on the limbs seldom happen, but when they do, they are more difficult to repair. Femoral breaks require internal fixation in the form of pins and wires or plates. These are more costly procedures, as anesthetic with surgery is necessary. Valuable purebred calves or pet animals are where these challenging cases get tackled. The humerus (large bone at top of front leg) can sometimes heal with very restricted pen rest. Real quiet cattle may tolerate this and can heal.

If handled properly the vast majority of broken legs will heal very well and the calf will go on to be a very productive animal. Before doing anything-rash check with your veterinarian before giving up on any calf with a broken leg regardless of its size. You will find most can be helped and in most cases you will be very pleased with the outcome.

RoyLewisisapractisinglargeanimal veterinarianattheWestlockVeterinaryCenter, northofEdmonton,AB.Hismaininterestsare bovinereproductionandherdhealth

About the author


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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