Ask the Vet

Contracted Tendons More Common Than You Think

The most common limb abnormality at birth, contracted tendons may be more common in spring-calving herds. (Progressive Farmer image by Jim Patrico)


A calf was born two days ago to a mature, healthy-looking Angus cow. The calf, which weighs about 50 pounds, was too weak to get up. We started it on colostrum replacer two hours after birth. The calf is alert, but its front legs are crooked. We have never experienced this before. We were told to put PVC pipe on its legs with tape, but we cannot straighten the legs out. The calf's organs are all working, and she sucks really good. What causes these types of problems?


Let me make some specific comments on your case before getting into the nuts and bolts of this. The size of the calf makes me worried that this may be difficult to treat. Most cases that respond to splinting occur in larger calves.

Contracted tendons are the most common limb abnormality at birth. In my experience, this is more common with large calves. It happens because their size keeps those limbs flexed during the last weeks in utero.

Some experts believe contracted tendons are more common in spring-calving herds, especially when cattlemen are trying to increase the dam's body condition the last few months of her pregnancy. This coincides with the time when calf growth is most rapid. If the supplementation focuses on energy and protein, and does not provide adequate mineral nutrition, the calf's body and muscles may grow faster than its bones and tendons.

Contracted tendons can also have toxic, infectious or genetic causes. These cases are often more severe and are harder, or impossible, to treat. Some plants like lupine and hemlock, for example, contain toxic substances (alkaloids) that can affect skeletal development and lead to contracted tendons. Bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), bluetongue, Akabane Disease and other viral illnesses can cause contracted tendons, even fused joints and neurologic problems. There are also genetic causes, most recently a defect in certain lines of Angus cattle known as curly calf syndrome or arthrogryposis multiplex (AM). Most AM calves are born dead or so severely affected, they cannot survive.

Mild cases of contracted tendons may be treated by manually extending the affected joints several times a day. Splints can be very helpful in treatment. There are commercially available splints, but PVC pipe cut in half can often be used successfully. Make sure there is adequate padding, and care must be taken not to cut off circulation to the leg.

Because these calves are small and portable, I strongly advise taking this one to your veterinarian. This will allow for a better assessment of the cause, as well as a prognosis for successful resolution and selection of the best treatment plan. I often give a vitamin E/selenium injection, but I am not sure I have good evidence that it helps. I don't think it hurts if you don't give too much. I also often give the calf NSAID meds that help with pain and inflammation.