This year we have seen a lot of broken legs in calves. Whether that is due to how much snow we had and having cows cramped up into smaller spaces or if it is just the year, I’m not sure. But here’s the how to and the what’s what on calf broken legs.
Your initial exam
As the producer, your initial exam is going to be very important so that we know what kind of break we are dealing with. Knowing basic anatomy is useful. On the front leg from the ground up, we have the foot, the fetlock, the carpus, the elbow and the shoulder. On the back leg from the ground up we have the foot, the fetlock, the hock, the stifle and the hip. Being able to describe where the break is, is very important when talking to your veterinarian.
Also, take a good feel of the fracture. If the fracture has come through the skin, let your veterinarian know because this could change the game plan substantially. Feel the foot because if the foot is ice cold then the chances of saving it are slim.
Dislocated hips look similar to fractures and are typically non-weight bearing. These most often occur during a hard pull and look like a lot of hip swelling. Sometimes these can be replaced but other times are left to scar down or if the calf is in too much pain, then we have to put them down.
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Front legs bear more weight than the back legs at 60% of the bodyweight which means 30% per leg. As a newborn or even a few months old calf, they typically can do well bearing 60% of their weight on the good leg. But as they age, the good leg will slowly start to break down with the extra weight. That is why it is important to make sure that we get these breaks fixed right away so they heal appropriately.
There is not very much muscle surrounding the metacarpus, which is the bone between the fetlock and the carpus. This is the most common place for an open fracture to occur, meaning that the bone has poked outside of the skin. Fractures in this area can also cause vascular compromise and death of the foot. Fractures that are below the elbow can most likely be splinted or casted, whereas fractures above the elbow typically are not unless your veterinarian wants to try a Thomas Schroder splint on that area. The key is to splint or cast the joint above and the joint below the fracture. If you do not do this successfully, your splint or cast will just become a fulcrum.
The metatarsus is located between the fetlock and the hock, which again is a common place for an open fracture. The next most common place for an open fracture is the tibia, which is between the hock and the stifle, because this area does not have much muscle surrounding it either. It is very important for these fractures to completely immobilize the calf so that the bone does not pop through the skin.
If the fracture occurs between the stifle and the hip at the femur, we typically let it heal by second intention meaning that it will heal on its own as this area has a lot of muscle to help stabilize it. Again, if your veterinarian wants to try a Thomas Schroder splint on this area, they can.
If the hip is out of place, we can try to replace it, but typically the damage is so severe that it does not stay in place due to the loss of the stabilizing soft tissue structures. Then we rely on the heavy amount of muscle in this area to stabilize it.
If your calf has a broken leg, first take a good look at where the fracture is. Second, immobilize the calf if it is a low break so it does not become open. Call your veterinarian before splinting because an improper splint can make an OK fracture turn into a life ending fracture within minutes.
Lainie Kringen-Scholtz, DVM, is owner of True North Veterinary Health and associate at Big Sioux Veterinary Care. Reach her at email@example.com or PO Box 117, Wentworth, SD 57075.