Dealing With Contracted Or Lax Tendons In Newborn Calves

Every spring, producers end up with calves with contracted tendons (knuckling over) or the complete opposite – lax tendons where the back of the fetlock is touching the ground.

Preventing these abnormalities is difficult because they are sporadic, but they can be managed successfully.

Generally the knuckling over occurs in bigger rawboned calves or weaker calves (twins). It may be because of a lack of room in the uterus or simply long bones which have grown faster than the tendons. Calves will knuckle over (especially on the front legs) to varying degrees, ranging from slight knuckling to cases where the fetlock is bent over at a 90-degree angle. The temptation is to splint these or have them cast, but my experience is the majority will get stronger with time if left. Some physiotherapy – physically extending the toe to stretch the tendon – will do some good. Casts and splints do a good job of immobilizing the area, but don’t allow it to strengthen.

It’s important to ensure the calf is well bedded and to be vigilant in checking for pressure sores, which can develop on the front of the fetlock because of rubbing as the calf walks. If this occurs, a protective padded bandage needs to be applied.

Every time you see the calf, place the foot in the natural position and over time (in 95 per cent of cases) the problem will resolve.

Another problem with splints is that they lead to pressure sores and the calf’s movement will be greatly restricted. This makes it hard for the calf to rise or suckle, and that can lead to other infectious problems.

The front of the toes can also be rasped a bit so long toes do not continually catch on the ground. This tips the toes in the right direction and, with time and exercise, the condition often reverses.


In foals with contracted tendons, tetracycline antibiotics are given intravenously. The theory is the antibiotics bind calcium, which reduces the growth of the long bones and allows the tendons to catch up. I have tried this with some success but it is not scientifically proven.

When stretching out the foot, you will feel the tendons at the back of the foot become extremely taut and this is what must lengthen in order to allow the leg to straighten. If there is no tautness, the extensor

tendons on the front of the leg are weak or lax, and these cases resolve quickly as the calf gets stronger.

With severe contracted tendons (the ones where the foot is bent 90 degrees), surgical intervention may be necessary. A local anesthetic is applied and a small incision is made over the tendons. An instrument called a tenotome (like a thick scalpel) is used to partially sever the tendons to bring the foot around. The veterinarian must be careful to not overdo the cutting and have the toe become overextended as the opposite problem develops. The leg is still left slightly contracted and over time this will stretch and resolve. Obviously, this is a veterinary procedure.

Because of good nutrition and smaller calves, we see less and less of these contracted tendons or knuckling over. With hard pulls, some swelling and nerve damage may increase the likelihood of

knuckling. These generally are the larger calves and they may have knuckled anyway. Pulling on backwards calves can result in this same nerve damage so always double wrap chains when pulling to spread out the force and minimize any swelling. With harder pulls, anti-inflammatory drugs with flunixine may be prescribed by your veterinarian.

The opposite problem of lax tendons results in calves walking on the backs of their fetlocks. This may result in pressure sores on the back of the fetlock and bandaging again may be necessary. Keep calves in a well-bedded area and tincture of time will generally resolve most of these issues.

While this laxity is very dramatic, within a few days things usually return to normal. Creating scarring along the tendons has been tried (such as the old pin firing they used at the track for bowed tendons years ago) but I don’t recommend it. Time is your best friend.

Patience and not rushing into external devices or surgery is the best advice I can give. Different nutritional supplements have been looked at but as far as I am aware, nothing is conclusive as to their benefit. Only put on external devices such as splints under the advice of your veterinarian as often they cause more harm than good. Calves with these contracted or lax tendons have difficulty rising and standing, so be absolutely sure they suckle quickly and get the first suck of colostrum within the first six hours of birth. The majority of these calves will go on to be very viable, so a little time and patience initially will result in a very satisfactory end result.

Roy Lewis is a large-animal veterinarian practising at the

Westlock Veterinary Centre. His main interests are bovine

reproduction and herd health.





Everytimeyouseethecalf,placethefootin thenaturalpositionandovertime(in95per centofcases)theproblemwillresolve.



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