Dealing with broken bones in calves

There are many options for setting a broken bone

Occasionally cattle suffer fractures, and it’s generally a leg bone. Often it’s a young or newborn calf, and the fractured limb should be cast or splinted for proper healing.

When Dr. Andy Acton with Deep South Animal Clinic at Ogema, Sask., gets a phone call from a producer about a possible fracture, he asks about the age of the calf, whether it’s a front leg or back leg, and the location of the fracture. Some may not be sure. All they know is the calf is lame on that leg.

“We are sometimes presented with something different than what we were told on the phone. That’s not a big problem; we will sort it out. If it’s a newborn, we ask if it has nursed yet, and how many hours old it is. We also ask if the fracture is due to a calving chain injury.” Sometimes this happens if the chains or straps are not applied properly.

“To prevent this kind of accident in the future we show the producer how to affix chains, straps or ropes with a loop and a half hitch (to spread pressure over a larger area) rather than just one loop. Invariably, a fracture from a calving pull is from a single loop. Some of those won’t heal, because the blood supply has been damaged.”

“If the producer wants to pursue a repair, we have him/her bring the calf to the clinic. The only thing that might make a repair questionable would be an injury where there is lots of blood or an exposed bone,” he says. That increases the risk of infection and lessens the chance of recovery.

“The end result may depend on how much the producer wants to commit to, regarding care and treatment, and the relative value of that calf. Is it a commercial calf, a purebred, or their daughter’s 4-H heifer project calf?” says Acton.

With a low fracture they’ll x-ray it to determine whether the joint is involved.

Higher fractures may just need a simple cast. With a cannon bone fracture, on a front or back leg, the cast must be high enough to immobilize the joint above and below the break to avoid any chance for movement at the fracture site.

About 10 per cent of fractures are higher up the leg — above the knee or hock — and can’t be treated with a normal cast. In the front leg this would be the radius and on the back leg, it’s usually the tibia (between hock and stifle).

“These are not as common as a fracture of the cannon bone, but veterinarians may try to repair them because we can do some things we couldn’t do years ago, in terms of options for a good repair that is still within the range of what most people would consider economical,” says Acton.

If the calf is on a pasture it might be necessary to immobilize the break with a splint until the calf can be brought into the clinic. “For a temporary splint, one of the best things to put around the leg might be a thick magazine, secured with duct tape, or PVC pipe cut lengthwise, as long as there is enough padding around the leg, under the pipe or the magazine,” he explains. A towel or a roll of cotton can be wrapped around the leg to pad it.

“Many calves are brought in that are not splinted, and they usually do fine after we cast them.

“The type of fracture that would be most worrisome would be a long-angled break with a shard of bone that might perforate the skin. I’ve seen this happen once, where the producer tried to create a splint — and a break that hadn’t perforated then perforated, and we couldn’t deal with it,” he says.

“Regarding care at home, before you bring the calf in, the important thing with newborns is making sure they get a couple litres of colostrum.” You may have to help the calf nurse its mother, or feed it colostrum that you milk from the cow. If necessary you could administer the colostrum via tube or esophageal feeder just to get the job done.

“If it will be several hours before you can get that calf to the veterinarian, you need to get colostrum or a replacement product into that calf. If the calf arrives here without having colostrum, I prefer to address that problem even before I take care of the fracture,” says Acton.

Ways to immobilize the fracture

There are many options today for setting a broken bone.

“There are very few fractures in young calves that we can’t deal with in a fairly economical fashion. A fracture of the femur (between hip and stifle) and fracture of the humerus on the front leg (between shoulder and elbow) are very difficult, but if it’s the right calf, at the right age, it may heal. These are both fairly rare fractures. The humerus can sometimes be left to heal on its own, and in a few cases the femur can heal on its own — if the animal doesn’t have to travel much, and the muscling is thick enough to help hold that femur in place. This works best on an older calf; a newborn usually doesn’t have enough muscling. If the calf is older, and depending on where the break is on the femur, and how the fracture is lined up, it may heal. We can assess the fracture, and help the producer figure out what they want to do with that calf,” Acton says.

The humerus often fractures in a spiral. As long as the calf had a good start, and has a calm temperament, it may heal. The temperament of the calf and the mother makes a big difference.”

If the cow is wild or nervous and can’t tolerate being confined with her calf, it’s not going to work.

Resolving cannon bone fractures is fairly simple, explains Acton. “We just use a fiberglass cast that’s high enough (above the knee or hock) to immobilize it. On the tibia or radius (above the hock or the knee), if the fracture is too high up the bone, we use a version of the Thomas-Schroeder splint,” says Acton.

This splint looks like a crutch that goes beneath the armpit (for a front limb) or groin (for a hind leg) and attaches to the bottom of the leg at the hoof. The limb is stretched out between the top and bottom, with the splint spanning the whole leg.

“Those used to be created by weaving them in place with tape but we’ve modified it to where we now use cast material supported by the splint. We’ve had better luck with this adaptation, and most of those calves do fine. We used to have a certain percentage in which the splint would either rub too much and cause problems, or shift and have to be redone more than twice. Now we have a pretty good way to support these fractures.”

If the fracture is low enough on the radius or tibia, a couple of pins can be driven horizontally into the bone above it, to create an anchoring site to hold a cast in place.

“We can’t stabilize the stifle joint or elbow joint with a cast because we can’t get high enough. But if we drive pins through the bone, we can cast from the foot up to those pins and go over the top of them; they are incorporated into the cast itself. We link them together on the outside of the cast material with acrylic glue. This becomes the joint above the fracture, and we’ve anchored the joint below with a cast right down to the toe. We’ve had very good luck with those,” says Acton.

“None of these methods work 100 per cent of the time, and we prefer to work on the cases that have a high chance of success if things are done right. We don’t like to work on open fractures that have poor prognosis, though we do sometimes. We just want the producer to know that the odds are lower,” he says. Those cases require diligent wound care that involves removing the cast periodically to treat the open wound.

“With a normal fracture and cast, sometimes we need to do two casts — to allow for the growing leg, but most of the time we can just use the original cast. We remove it three to four weeks later, using some wires we put in the cast, splitting it lengthwise, and then put it back on as a splint, using duct tape. It’s already formed to the leg, and we can take it off before it creates significant sores.”

It is important to follow the guidelines for home care. The cast can be removed at the proper time, new padding put in, and the cast taped back on as a splint. “This can continue to support the leg for another week or 10 days. The cast is weakened, however, which makes the leg itself take a little more weight, which helps the bone heal stronger, at that stage, while still giving some support,” explains Acton.

This works better than applying two full casts, which involves two anaesthetics and two sessions at the veterinary clinic. “If the producer has some help to hold and restrain the calf, they can just take that cast off, use it as a splint a bit longer, and then remove it completely after the leg has healed,” he says.

“A little padding at the right spots, but not too much, is very important, along with having the leg lined up correctly. You want a good outcome, instead of a crooked leg or a big knot on the bone.

“If someone is trying to make a splint at home without proper padding and support at the joints, they run the risk of something that’s not as humane for the calf.

“My goal is to assist the repair in such a way that you can’t tell which calf had a broken leg. Some of the things we learn while dealing with young calves (that heal quickly) have helped us in dealing with some of the older calves as well,” says Acton.

Casts for older animals

“Cannon bone fractures are fairly simple on babies, but with larger animals it’s harder for them to deal with a cast all the way up the leg. In this situation we’ll use the pin cast method on a low cannon bone fracture. We can put two pins through part of the cannon bone and have a much shorter cast, making it easier for the animal to get around. We’ve done this with 600- to 1,200-pound animals. We can also use a pin cast for an animal that needs a cast left on longer, because we are not as worried about sores. The hock or knee can bend normally, so they can get around on that leg fairly well.”

A few years ago he designed a custom Thomas splint for a 1,500-pound show heifer using 27 rolls of fibreglass cast material.

“She healed nicely and she’s still walking around today, and her owner is flushing embryos from her. The owners did an amazing job taking care of her at home while that leg was healing. She needed a lot of good care. It was a team effort, with help from veterinarians who had done something like this with other animals, with suggestions on how to get that big splint constructed, how long to leave it on, and how to manage it. I had done lots of Thomas splints with young calves, so this was just a bigger version and figuring out what we’d have to do,” he says.

“It’s nice to be able to have something to offer, to help these animals recover and lead a normal life,” he says.

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