Broken limbs

Bone breaks, depending on where they occur, should be handled differently.

We have been fixing a lot of broken legs in calves. I think it’s mostly because we have had to keep cattle in closer than normal this year. But hopefully this will start decreasing now that we are out on grass.

Here is what you should do as a producer if you have a calf with a broken leg. Please refer to the diagram for anatomical terms and splint summary.

Where’s the break?

First we have to figure out where the break is. The best way to do this is to lay the calf on its side and start feeling up the leg starting at the foot. I usually flex every joint as I go and palpate (feel) all the long bones.

If there is swelling, that is usually a good indication of where the break will be. Also, it’s good to palpate the whole limb to make sure that there is no bone sticking out of the skin. If there is bone sticking out of the skin, you need to call your veterinarian right away for consultation.

Technical terms

Distal means closer to the ground. Proximal is closer to the body. Lateral is outside of the leg. Medial is inside of the leg.

Break stabilization

The goal for stabilizing a limb is to stabilize the joint above and the joint below the fracture. Example: if the break is between the toes and the carpus, you will need to stabilize the whole foot all the way to the carpus.

Use lots of padding (you can purchase cast padding from your vet or use quilting padding). Next, apply brown gauze tightly. After the gauze, use a piece of board that is long enough to stabilize both the above and below joints. Then apply either duct tape or vetwrap around the leg and the splint. Do not cut off circulation to the coronary band around the foot. I always leave padding above and below the duct tape.

Distal limb

The distal limb is considered anything below the carpus (front leg, “front knee”) or hock (back leg). If it’s a front leg distal limb, put a splint on the front of the leg. If it is a back leg distal limb, put a splint on the back of the leg. Incorporate both the toes and the carpus.


The mid-limb on the front limbs is between the elbow and the carpus. For the back leg, it is between the stifle and the hock. For both of these breaks, splint on the lateral side incorporating both the elbow and carpus or hock and stifle.

Proximal limb

The front leg is between the shoulder and the elbow. For the back leg, this is between the hip and the stifle. For these, we will do a Thomas splint or no splint at all.

Call your veterinarian before you splint these fractures. If a splint is not put on appropriately, it can make these breaks much worse.

Scapula and pelvis

Fractures of the scapula and pelvis are not able to be splinted. These have to heal on pain medicine and rest.


Splinting the limb correctly is important. Call us or call your local veterinarian anytime with questions.

Questions? Send email to Eric Knock, DVM, at or send mail to 321 E. 14th St., Miller, SD 57362. Eric Knock owns and operates Prairie View Vet Clinic in Miller, Redfield, Wessington Springs and Highmore, S.D.

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