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Animal Health

Broken legs: Options for limb mending are available

Written by Heather Smith Thomas

Occasionally a young calf suffers a fractured limb, which needs to be cast or splinted for proper healing.

Accidents occur, such as the cow stepping on her calf and breaking a leg. While they rancher might not see it happen, they will often find the calf unable to get up, very lame or injured after a group of 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. In other situations, a leg might be broken in an accident during transport or branding.

Sometimes the break is obvious, and sometimes it may be harder to figure out the problem. Mark Hilton, Purdue University veterinarian, tells clients that if they’re not sure, they should call their veterinarian to get a diagnosis and some help with treatment.

Diagnosing a break

Broken legs in newborn calves usually fall into two categories – “mama trauma,” in which the calf got stepped on or the cow fell on it, and calves that get their legs broken while being pulled during birth.

To prevent the latter injury, it is crucial to utilize proper technique for pulling calves, applying the chains properly, 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 being pulled with chains is often worse than for a calf that gets its leg stepped on.

Another injury sometimes seen at calving is fracturing of the femur when a backward calf is being pulled. This happens if the person pulling the calf pulls downward too soon as the calf is just coming through the pelvis and before the back legs are fully out of the pelvis. Pulling down too soon wedges the calf’s legs in the cow’s pelvis and fractures the femurs – like putting a stick on your knee and breaking it.

Mending the break

Some fractures are more easily repaired, depending on location.

“Most of the time when a really young calf suffers a broken leg, it’s broken at the growth plate at the end of the long bone. When it’s broken at the growth plate, it tends to break straight across,” Hilton explains.

“If we 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 we get the fracture set, and the calf can walk on it. The main purpose of the cast or splint is to prevent bending,” he says.

If the fracture is above the growth plate, it’s generally better to use a cast than a splint, according to Hilton. The cast can share weight with the leg.

“Splints are great for maintaining alignment of the limb, but if we also have to support some of the weight, a cast is more effective,” he adds.

There are some splints designed for high limb injuries, and these 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 newborn calf.

An older calf carrying more weight may not have such a good prognosis for a high break.

Healing process

“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 we can control the weight-bearing force,” says Hilton.

Young calves’ bones heal more quickly than those of older animals, especially if the producer can support the fracture properly.

“Success rate is high in those that are not open fractures, without infections. 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,” he says.

Often a piece of PVC pipe works as a splint, cut lengthwise so the rancher 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, we 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. 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 explains.

Other options

Sometimes the veterinarian will apply a fiberglass cast to a lower leg fracture, according to George Barrington, a Washington State University veterinarian.

“These might be more expensive than a splint, but they are low maintenance and do a very good job of keeping the leg supported,” he says.

“If a young calf is taken to a veterinarian and ends up with a cast, the rancher needs to be aware that the cast might need to be changed after a few weeks. Calves grow fast, and if the calf outgrows the cast, they could have more problems.”

In some cases, a fiberglass cast can be split lengthwise if it starts to get tight, to create more space, keeping it on as a splint for a few more weeks of support and healing. The split cast can be wrapped with stretchy tape to hold it securely together.

Careful observation

It’s important to monitor a cast and know when to check it for replacement or modification. Veterinarians can give producers a time frame.

“Fiberglass casts are much handier than the old plaster-of-Paris casts that people used in earlier years. When plaster got wet, it just fell apart,” says Barrington.

The fiberglass casts are more resilient, breathe and can dry out again if they get wet. Ranchers can also add some waterproof material to the outside of the cast or provide shelter for the calf, out of the weather, until the cast can be taken off.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..