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Limb problems in newborn calves

Know the proper practices and intervention techniques to avoid injuries to calves

Limb problems in newborn calves

Occasionally a calf is born with crooked legs, lax or contracted tendons or some other abnormality that may need care. Some situations straighten on their own with time and exercise, while others require intervention, and some defects are so severe the calf must be euthanized. In other situations a newborn calf may suffer a fractured limb, which needs to be cast or splinted to ensure proper healing.

Broken bones

Dr. David Anderson, head of agricultural practices and director of the International Academy of Farm Animal Surgeons at Kansas State University, says 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. “One of the important things in preventing this second type of injury is to utilize proper technique for pulling calves. We encourage clients to go through a calving class, to be informed about appropriate times to intervene and assist a birth, and learn how to apply chains properly,” he says.

“Calving chain 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 with chains is often worse than for a calf that gets its leg stepped on. We advocate a double half-hitch, with one loop above and one below the fetlock (on the pastern) to spread the force so it doesn’t all pull on one place,” he says.

Occasionally a cow may step on her newborn calf, or a young calf may be trampled by stampeding cows that are trying to protect their calves from predators. Some fractures are more easily repaired than others, depending on their location on the leg. “Fortunately, most of the time a young calf suffers a broken leg, it’s broken at the growth plate at the end of the long bone and 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 main purpose of the cast or splint is to prevent bending,” says Anderson.

“When the fracture occurs higher up the leg, it’s more difficult to stabilize the weight-bearing force. Assessing the location is important when deciding on what type of appliance to fix it. If the fracture is above the growth plate, a cast can share weight with the leg much more than a splint can,” he explains.

“For fractures above the knee or hock, we use a technique called pin casting. We put pins in the bones before we put the cast on, to help prevent weight bearing on the fractured area and displacing it. This simple technique can easily be done in the field. It doesn’t require an operating room. Pins are inexpensive, and this can give a high limb fracture better opportunity to heal,” says Anderson.

There are splints designed for high limb injuries, and these can sometimes work to immobilize the leg enough for it to heal. A dog splint, for instance, can sometimes be adequate to support a hind limb injury on a newborn calf. “The nice thing about the newborn calf is that as long as the blood supply is intact and we don’t get infection in the injured area, those fractures usually heal very well if we can control the weight-bearing force.” Young calves’ bones heal more quickly than those of an older animal.

“One of the things we talk to clients about is first aid for fractures. You need to get a veterinarian involved in the treatment, so the calf will have the best chance, but it may be a few hours before the veterinarian can come. Most fractures we see in young calves are not open wounds or compound fractures, so there’s no infection. But if we don’t do a good job of protecting that limb and it becomes open, the chances for that calf to survive plummet quickly,” he says.

“You need to prevent calves from putting weight on the leg. Sometimes we put them in slings — like a human arm sling that holds your arm against your chest (to reduce movement). In calves, for the front leg we have what’s called a Velpeau sling. In the hind limb we use an Ehmer sling. These bandage the leg up against the body. Except for fractures that occur during birth (joints and bones damaged by pulling), if a calf has already been up and around before the injury occurred, he can usually walk around fairly well on three legs for short periods of time, long enough to nurse,” says Anderson.

Contracted/lax tendons

“Contracted tendons are the most common limb abnormality at birth. The challenging thing is to determine if it’s a genetic, toxic or infectious cause, which are much less likely to respond to treatment,” says Anderson.

Crooked calf syndrome has been associated with certain toxic plants like lupine or hemlock. Alkaloids in these plants, if consumed by the dam during early pregnancy (such as between 40 and 70 days, for lupine), can affect the developing skeletal structure. The toxins act as a sedative. If the fetus is not moving as much as it normally does, tendons become shortened and joints tend to become fixed. Limbs may be twisted or fixed in flexed positions and cannot straighten. Often the bones themselves develop abnormal structure and rotational defects.

“Because of multiple defects caused by these toxins, the crooked limbs are unlikely to respond to therapy. If we are reasonably certain this is the case, euthanasia is often the best option for calves if the defect is severe and the calf can’t get up and around,” he says. Some calves have mild defects — such as front legs cocked forward a little at the knee or fetlock joint — and can still move around enough to survive and grow to butcher size.

“We also see some viruses that can cause contracted tendons. When we see contracted tendons we may suspect BVD virus or Akabane virus. Normally, in calves that have limb contractures and fused joints (arthrogryposis) from infection, they also have neurological problems as well. If this is the case, treatment will be unrewarding, and most of the time these calves are euthanized,” says Anderson.

“In the last two years, curly calf syndrome (Arthrogryposis Multiplex) has been identified as a genetic problem. We see a number of calves born with arthrogryposis or badly contracted, curved legs that we feel are genetic, but relatively little work has been done to identify the specifigenes that may be involved. The rapidity with which the curly calf genetics were identified was very impressive. Those calves will not respond to therapy. So we try to identify the cause of crooked calves, to know which ones cannot be helped. A person might otherwise spend money on a calf, with no improvement.”

Contracted tendons can be due to nutritional deficiencies. “We see a fair number of spring-calving herds where cows have become thin over winter and people are trying to push more energy and protein during the final months of gestation. When the stockman is trying to add body condition/ weight to a cow in late gestation we’re more likely to see contracted tendons in the calves,” he says.

“The swiftly growing fetus does drain the cow, so there’s benefit in making sure there’s adequate nutrition during the later stage of pregnancy, and it is critical to have adequate minerals available during that time. The cow is putting a lot of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, etc. into that calf for skeletal growth. But if we’re not supplementing the cow in a balanced way — if she’s getting a lot of energy and protein but not as much in the way of minerals — she may have an oversized calf that’s developed disproportionately. Essentially the calf’s muscle/body mass grows faster than the bones,” says Anderson.

These calves usually straighten, once they’re able to get up and walk. “We look at them and try to determine whether they’ll be able to get up and move around and exercise, to stretch those tendons.”

Normally, the sole of the foot is flat on the ground and the hoof wall makes a 45-to 60-degree angle with the ground. “In calves where hoof angle is more than 90 degrees and the wall is so upright it goes beyond vertical — tilted forward — the calf is standing on his toes with the heel completely off the ground. The hoof wall is angled forward instead of backward. Those calves need help.” They are at risk of damaging their legs by walking on the front of the foot and fetlock joint.

“Most cases respond very well to splinting. The biggest thing with using a splint is to make sure we protect the leg so the splint doesn’t rub and damage the leg, and so the tape used to attach the splint to the leg doesn’t strangulate or interfere with blood supply to the leg,” says Anderson.

“We use PVC pipe two to three inches in diameter, and cut it in half lengthwise. The calves that are too upright can be splinted with these. We drill holes through the hoof wall at the toe, where there’s no blood supply (just hard hoof), and drill corresponding holes in the end of the splint. Then we can run wires through the splint and the hoof wall so the splint is attached to the toe. Normally we splint on the back of the leg but this splint is on the front of the leg. When we pull it back to the leg it stretches the toe out and by taping the splint back to the cannon bone we keep that tension on it. It stretches the tendons rather quickly, and within two or three days we can usually remove the splint,” he says. By then, the calf walking around putting weight on the leg and exercising will finish stretching the tendon.

“Some calves can stand and walk, and the hoof wall is not beyond the vertical plane, but it’s difficult for them to walk. With some of those calves we put a rolled-toe shoe on them. We use PMMA acrylic, the same material we use to glue wooden blocks to lame cows’ feet. We attach the rolled-toe shoe to the bottom of the calf’s foot, using the shoe to change the hoof angle, extending the toe, with a rolled edge on the front. When the calf puts his foot down to the ground, this extension stretches the tendon.”

Some calves are born with windswept hind legs — where both legs are bent/curved off to one side, the same direction. Most of those straighten on their own. “Some are windswept to the degree that they have trouble getting up and moving around for the first couple days, but normally they strengthen rapidly and we don’t have to do anything more than help them get up at first,” says Anderson.

“We still don’t understand what causes windswept syndrome. We think it may be due to abnormal position in the uterus during the last 60 days of gestation. During that period of rapid growth in the calf, his movement in the uterus is diminished (not enough room to move around) and he’s starting to get into position for birth. We think positioning in the uterus may be the cause of this crookedness, and it may also be nutrition ally influenced, similar to what happens with contracted tendons, if the cow has an unbalanced ration during the last few months of pregnancy,” he says.

“Whenever you see dramatic angulation abnormality in the limbs, such as lax tendons or angular limb deformity, you want to make sure the calves don’t damage their limbs further, by travelling too much. It helps to keep the cow and calf in a small area, so they don’t have to walk far to feed and water, following mama. They need enough room for exercise, but not a big pasture,” he says. A lot of walking will make it worse instead of better, with too much trauma to the limb.

This is especially true with lax tendons, in which the fetlock joint is clear down on the ground and calves are walking on their heels and fetlock joints. The toe may be pointed upward. “This is sometimes the case with premature calves (whose leg structure is not yet as strong as it should be), or some type of abnormal maturation in the uterus, or abnormal positioning in the uterus. If calves with lax tendons are walking too much — walking on the back of the fetlock joint — they may continually put stretching pressure on those tendons and they won’t tighten. We like to confine those calves so they aren’t travelling/moving very much.”

Lax tendons are sometimes seen in “fawn” calves (a genetic defect known as Contractural Arachnodactyly), in which the leg bones seem too long. Most of these calves have a long, arched back and short underline, with stifles and elbows close together, and hind legs bent at the hock joint — with hind feet too far forward. The calf has long pasterns and walks on his heels and fetlock joints.

“Fawn calf syndrome is thought to be an inherited genetic defect. Those calves have a better prognosis than curly calves, just because fawn calves can usually get up and move around.” Many fawn calves can survive and mature. But this is a limb problem that can’t be resolved with treatment.

“We all accept the fact that we’ll see crooked legs once in awhile, whether it’s lax tendons, contracted tendons, or angular limb deformities. If a herd has more than 0.5 to one per cent of a calf crop affected, however, this would be reason to evaluate what might be going on. If it’s nutrition you can readily get on top of it, but if it’s an infectious cause like BVD we need to get this straightened out as quickly as possible. If it’s something genetic, you need to change things for next year (using different bulls). Identifying the cause is important because you don’t want to use that particular bull again.” You may also want to identify the cows that produced those calves and either cull them or make sure you never keep offspring that might be carriers. If it’s a problem caused by toxic alkaloids in plants such as hemlock or lupine, you might consider using a different pasture after the cows are bred, or eradicating the poison plants.

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