Ask The Vet

Contracted Tendons

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?

Dr. McMillan: 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.

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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.

Readers Talk Back:

I read in your column there is another tick disease, Texas cattle fever. Can my dogs, cats and horses get it? What about people? –M. Welsh, MarylandGood news: Unless you’re a cow, there’s nothing to worry about from Texas cattle fever. There are, however, a lot of reasons to make every effort to control ticks. They can transmit microorganisms that cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis, to name just a few. I’m often asked about tick- and flea-control products for use on pets and, more recently, about the isoxazolines and their safety. This class of chemicals is found in products like Bravecto and NexGard. We have been in four clinical trials for Bravecto, and I was impressed with how safe and effective it was. Since its launch, we’ve used thousands of doses with essentially no significant issues. We’ve done the same with NexGard. Based on what I’ve seen, I think this class of chemicals is safe and effective. And, while a pet could absolutely have a problem with any one of these products, I find that to be rare.

Please contact your veterinarian for questions pertaining to the health of your herd. Every operation is unique, and the information in this column does not pertain to all situations. This is not intended as medical advice but is purely for informational purposes.

Write Dr. Ken McMillan at Ask The Vet, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email

vet@progressivefarmer.com.

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