Leg of Lamb

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Larry carefully laid the lamb on the exam table, being watchful of an obvious broken hind leg.

“I know that this lamb isn’t worth much,” Larry said. “But I have a couple of little girls who are really upset.”

“Do we know how this leg was broken?” I asked. “Or at least, when it happened?”

“We have no idea how it happened, but I know this lamb was fine this morning when we let it out of the barn,” Larry said. “If we don’t put them up every night, we just end up feeding the coyotes.”

“This is a mid-shaft fracture of the femur,” I said. “That makes a splint almost impossible. Plus, these lambs grow so fast, an external splint is not practical. We would be changing and adjusting the splint every week. That would add up to a lot of dollars.”

“I just can’t put this lamb to sleep,” Larry said. “Is there any way you can fix it without me having to sell the farm?”

“The best way to repair this fracture is with an Intramedullary pin. Last year I repaired a similar fracture in a newborn calf with an IM pin,” I said. “That turned out great, but that calf was worth a lot more than a lamb when it reached market weight. The best medical decision is often not the best financial decision.”

“I don’t know if I can justify spending several hundred dollars on a market lamb,” Larry said. “I say market lamb, but if you fix him, he will probably be a forever pet.”

“Larry, if we cut a few corners, I can probably put a pin in this leg for hundred dollars,” I said as I palpated the leg carefully. “This guy is small enough that it will be an easy repair. Did you give him a tetanus shot when you banded him?”

“I can swing a hundred dollars,” Larry said. “Thanks a lot for trying. And I didn’t give him a tetanus shot. I didn’t know that was something that was needed.”

“Most of the time, we don’t worry about tetanus in a banded lamb,” I said. “But we do lose one every once in a while. The numbers lost probably don’t justify the cost of the vaccine. But when we are going to put a hundred dollars into this guy, he’s going to get a tetanus shot.”

“When are you going to do this?” Larry asked.

“We are going to do him right away,” I said. “I have one more appointment this morning before surgery. We will just put him first on the surgery schedule. I would guess that he will be ready to go home by one or two this afternoon. He should be up and around. It would be best if you could keep him and his mom in a small pen for a couple of weeks.”

It did not take long to get the lamb under anesthesia with a gas anesthetic via a mask. We clipped and prepped the leg and draped it for surgery. 

I made a short incision over the fracture site. This lamb was young enough that he has limited muscle mass, and exposing the fracture site was a simple process. I almost wondered if I could have done this entire procedure as a closed reduction. 

Once the fracture site was exposed, I place the IM pin in a retrograde manner. Quickly reducing the fracture site, I held the fractured ends of the bone together with my fingers as I seated the IM pin into the distal fragment. 

This was a simple repair, and the fracture site was very stable once the pin was in place. 

“This guy is going to running around the field by the time we get the sutures out.”

When I cut the pin off at the top of the bone, I left it a little long. Not so long that I could not close the skin over the end of the pin at the hip, but I hoped that it was long enough that I would be able to remove it at six weeks after surgery. These lambs grow so fast, I doubted that I would be able to remove the pin.

The lamb recovered rapidly from anesthesia, and true to my prediction, he was up and looking for mom. We gave him a tetanus shot and a dose of long-acting penicillin. Then I gave Larry a call.

“Surgery is done, and this lamb is up and looking for lunch,” I said. “I think the sooner you pick him up, the better. Like I said earlier, keeping him and his mother in a small pen for a couple of weeks would be ideal. But, I tell you what, this guy is using his leg like nothing is wrong with it. Two weeks might be overkill.”

Larry came to the clinic right after my call.

“His mother is going to be happy to see him,” Larry said. “She has been calling for him all morning.”

Larry paid the bill and scooped up the lamb. The lamb was sucking on the collar of his shirt as he headed out the door.

“I think you are right,” Larry said. “He is looking for lunch, and I am not sure he cares much where it comes from.”

“I need to see him in two weeks for a check-up and suture removal,” I said. “Then we will check him at six weeks in the hope of removing that pin. There is a good chance he will grow enough that the pin will be completely inside of bone by then. That is not a problem, as long as the butcher doesn’t try to cut the leg with ban saw.”

“I am guessing that his little guy will end up being a pet and will never see the butcher,” Larry said. “By the time the girls get done with pampering him, he will be part of the family. Hopefully, that doesn’t mean he will be in the house.”

***

“I kept him in a small pin for three days,” Larry said. “He was bouncing around so much at that time that I just turned them out with the others. You can’t tell there is anything wrong with him. He doesn’t limp, and it hasn’t slowed him down a bit.”

“Let’s get these sutures out. This incision is well healed,” I said. “I can’t feel the end of the pin. It is probably inside the bone already. It will definitely be by six weeks, but I would like to get a look at him if it is not too much trouble.”

***

“Larry’s on the phone about that lamb,” Sandy said. “I think he wants to skip the recheck.”

“Larry, how is the lamb doing?” I asked.

“Doc, I don’t think we need to do a recheck,” Larry said. “For one thing, I’m not sure I can catch this guy. And if I would catch him, bringing him into the clinic would be a real struggle. He is as normal as any of our lambs.”

“That’s fine, Larry,” I said. “I’m glad that he healed up so well. Just remember what I said about warning the butcher about that pin in the bone.”

“I’ll remember, but like I said earlier, I’m sure this guy is never going to leave the place.”

Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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