vet on call: Lameness in calves; what you must know

Legs are great biological structures in all species of animals that possess them. Functionally, they are most important in mobility, offence or defence.

The soundness of the legs in livestock contributes highly to the ability of the animal to access food and hence become productive.

Most animals are born with fully functional legs. Others have slight deformities which resolve with age or deteriorate with time.

In extreme cases, some animals are born without one or more legs. This is a genetic defect called amelia.

Today, I focus on leg tendon contracture in calves. This is a condition where the tendons that flex the feet and wrists of the calf contract and cause various levels of lower leg deformities. In some instances, the deformities may be subtle but with growth, their devastating impact is revealed.

Tendon contracture is one of the rare conditions in cattle. In my 30 years of veterinary practice, I saw my first case three weeks ago.

To the contrary, my colleague Robert has already seen the condition in his fifth year of veterinary practice. This underlines the unpredictability of biological occurrences because they, many a times, happen by chance.

Mwangi, the acting manager at a farm in Thika, reported on phone that one of their heifer calves had failed to stand up despite assistance.

The calf was eating well but the front legs were crooked inwards at the carpal joint. This is the front leg joint that cattle put on the ground first when lying down or standing up. Many people mistakenly call it the cow’s knee. It is the equivalent of the human wrist.

I immediately made a mental note that there were more urgent cases that I should attend to before visiting Mwangi’s farm.

I instructed him to isolate the calf in a dry place with adequate bedding and provide drinking water and food. I would attend to the case in the next five hours.


I always schedule case attendance according to the urgency of the situation. However, my practice policy is to attend to all cases in the day reported.

I arrived on the farm at about 4pm and found the calf had eaten to its fill. It was ruminating regularly and looked bright.

The front legs were poised as if they would rake the bedding in front of the calf. The calf’s feet touched the ground with the tip of the hooves on the front legs. The temperature, heart and breathing rates were normal.

The animal was very anxious because its eyes were expectant and ears erect. It also made some granting noise as I approached it like though it was calling for help.

I keenly examined the front lower limbs and found the flexor tendons were taut like bow strings and were, therefore, pulling the feet inwards. The tips of the hooves were worn off by friction with the ground. This was evidence that the degenerative process had been going on for some time without being noticed.

I diagnosed contraction of the flexor tendons in both front legs. Both hind legs were functioning well and the calf could support its hind quarters in a standing position but would just tip over on the front legs when assisted to stand.

Extreme cases of tendon contraction may affect all four legs. I treated the calf with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and vitamins.

I also gave physiotherapy of the front legs by stretching the affected joints and the whole limbs for about 10 minutes each.

I advised Mwangi to give similar physiotherapy twice daily and use warm water and a towel to apply heat to the affected tendons.

He would also ensure that the calf was assisted to stand three times daily to help it put weight on the front legs.

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for contracted tendons. Some animals recover with the physiotherapy but others lose the use of the affected legs completely.

Others die of complications associated with lying down such as pneumonia, bloating and pressure wounds. Surgery of the tendons and the use of support sprints or casts have been attempted but the outcomes vary from recovery to deterioration.


The exact cause of tendon contraction in calves is not clearly known. It is, however, known that some toxins such as lupine from the lupine plants, inadequate space for the foetus in the uterus and inadequate movement of the calf during pregnancy are contributing factors.

Underfeeding animals in early pregnancy and over feeding them in the last stage of pregnancy; as well as genetic defects are other known causes of tendon contracture in calves.

From my findings, the calf must have been born with a mild tendon contracture that the workers on the farm failed to notice. The contracture deteriorated after birth as the calf grew to the point where it could not stand.

Inadequate feeding of the cow during early pregnancy results in poor growth of the bones of the foetus. If the cow is overfed in late pregnancy, the bones tend to grow faster than the tendons causing the joint to be folded inwards.

Once the calf is born, the bones may continue growing faster than the tendons thereby worsening the problem until the calf cannot stand.

The same situation may also occur when there are defective genes that cause the bones to grow faster than the tendons.

Certain infections such as the bovine viral diarrhoea virus are also known to cause tendon contraction in calves when infected during pregnancy.

The condition is prevented by providing pregnant cows with adequate balanced feeds, ensuring that pregnant cattle do not have access to plant toxins known to cause the problem and testing cattle to ensure that they are free of the bovine viral diarrhoea virus.

Animals that repeatedly produce calves with contracted tendons due to genetic defects should be culled to prevent propagation of the defective genes.

Examine keenly your calves legs to ensure they are properly functioning. Mwangi’s calf deteriorated despite treatment and died three weeks later from pneumonia complications.

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