While certainly not common, fractured (broken) bones in calves do happen and we are presented with several calves with broken legs every year. We help many of these calves reach a complete recovery, but sometimes we are unable to help them due to a variety of reasons. Hopefully we can cover a few points of intervention that may help reduce the odds of failure to heal, should you find a baby calf with a fracture.
The first step in dealing with a broken leg is once a break is suspected or identified, the calf must be caught and restrained. While sounding obvious and simple, the success or failure of healing a calf with a broken leg is often determined by when and how the calf is caught. It is important when trying to catch a calf with a broken leg, to remember that it does need caught, but it needs to be done calmly and with the least running for the calf possible. When running, a calf is much more likely to try to put weight on the broken leg, and risk creating a compound fracture (to be discussed shortly), or making the break worse.
Once the calf is caught, the best way to restrain it and prevent further damage to the break, is to hog-tie the calf, tying the three unaffected legs together, to prevent the calf from standing. Many times a producer will put the calf in a trailer or dog kennel, which can increase stress and make the calf struggle and again, risk a compound fracture.
A compound fracture is when the broken bone or a fragment of the broken bone punctures through the skin, opening the fracture to the bacteria of the skin and the environment. Compound fractures are nearly impossible to repair using normal and economic measures, due to the presence of the bacteria disrupting the ability of the bones to bond together successfully. Sepsis (blood infection) may follow, and either way, euthanasia is the usual result. These are the reasons that special care should be taken to prevent making a fracture a compound fracture.
Rarely, a calf will have a break in the skin where it was stepped on, causing the fracture, but usually there is much less blood loss associated with this, than if the bone punctures the skin. In the case of an abrasion of the skin, a cast will typically still heal the break. If there is any doubt about which happened, it is always better to have the calf examined.
Lastly, after a cast or splint is applied to the calf, it is best to keep the calf in a small pen with its mother. Excessive movement can prolong healing time or weaken the healing process. Care should also be taken to keep the cast dry, if wet or muddy conditions exist, keeping the calf in a shed or barn is best, so that the cast padding remains dry so that the cast will fit correctly.
Hopefully this information will help in the event, that you find a calf with a broken leg. As always, feel free to contact us with questions or problems!