Calf born with heart in its throat

calf with heart defect
Dubbed “Cardio Brisket” by its owner, Tom Leech, this shorthorn calf was born at Longview Farm in Washington, Pennsylvania, March 7. The calf suffers from a rare condition that allows its heart to move into its neck area. Leech said he has only found two other confirmed cases of similar conditions. (Submitted photo)

(A previous version of this article stated that a calf with a similar condition was born at Sullivan Farms in Iowa. That has been corrected)

WASHINGTON, Pa. — When Tom Leech of Longview Farm found a newborn Shorthorn bull calf in a pasture on the afternoon of March 7, he was immediately concerned with hypothermia.

He warmed the calf with an electric blanket and it started sucking on his mother right away. Then Leech saw something that worried him more than losing the calf to the cold.

“I noticed something pumping in his brisket area and figured it was an artery, or that he was still cold, or maybe something was stuck in his throat.”

But when he checked, Leech discovered the pumping in the neck was actually the calf’s heart.

“Once you grabbed it, you could tell it was his heart; you could feel it and see it moving back and forth,” Leech said.

He texted his vet and said, ‘if you’re in the area Monday, you might want to stop by.’”

Rare phenomenon

Todd Moores, of Wheeling Veterinary Associates in Wheeling, West Virginia, said the condition the calf suffers from is similar to thoracic inlet syndrome in humans.

“The heart is outside its chest and in its sternum areas, where the esophagus and trachea come together,” Moores said. “But with thoracic inlet, there is less room.

“In this case, the heart has been able to prolapse into the brisket area — the area is probably four to six times bigger than it should be.”

Moores has done only an external examination of the calf, which Leech named “Cardio Brisket”, but he suspects the sternum failed to form fully, or the calf is missing ribs.

“You can actually take the heart and move it back, but it won’t stay,” Moores said.

The doctor contacted researchers at the Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center, who agreed to study the calf to determine arterial damage or if the heart is transposed. The university could not, however, guarantee the calf’s survival. Leech passed on the offer.

Barn calf

Leech, his wife, Debbie, and the family raises 22 head, including calves, and Leech has been a cattleman for more than 40 years. He said he has been able to confirm only a couple cases of a calf with Cardio Brisket’s condition — one in Turkey and another in Kentucky in 1903.

Friends also told Leech they had a similar thing happen with a calf 14 or 15 years ago at Byland Polled Shorthorns in Loundonville, Ohio.

“They cut him open and he only lived an hour.”

For now, Cardio Brisket’s future is much brighter.

“I won’t be able to put him out with the others because if they get to roughousing, they could probably puncture it,” Leech said. “So he is going to be a barn calf. Unfortunately, I’m growing kind of attached to him.”

Leech said the long-range plan is to treat him like any other steer being fed out to market.

“If he dies under my control though, we will cut him up and see (what caused the heart condition),” he said. “If nothing else, out of curiosity.”


Moores said the calf is doing well, but is understandably more averse to cold weather, is not growing at the same rate as other calves, and suffers from a heart murmur.

“You could go to the effort to fix (the condition) as a baby, but it wouldn’t be economical,” he said. “The condition seems to be congenital and embryonic — a defect in which an area should close off but doesn’t.”

The result, Moores said, is a “shunting” of the blood that should be getting to the lungs. The lack of oxygenated blood to tissue, he said, will make the calf more susceptible to disease and infection as it grows.

“Also, the heart is not in the center of its body like it should be, it is just hanging out in the skin,” he added. “So its body is probably not being kept as warm as it should be.”


Moores said that in his career he has seen numerous birth defects, “from five-legged pigs to two-headed calves.”

“Two-headed calves are pretty dramatic, but this is probably the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And probably something we’ll never see again.”

While he is not quite as optimistic about the calf’s lifespan as Leech is, Moores said he is in agreement with the farmer’s game plan.

“I think Tom’s plan is to let the calf live as long as it can,” Moore said. “I think he’s grown kind of fond of it.”


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  1. We have heard many, many reports of abnormal, sick and dying animals in this area since what is called frack drilling began. chemicals are labeled as carcinogens and birth defect causes and yet allowed to be contaminants of air and water. Brain cancers and leukemias are being reported. Look at the rates in Texas and Oklahoma online and do not believe the public relations stories which are paid for by these corporations…this is a shocking and terrible thing for farms as the water table is now contaminated and far from the actual sites water tests positive for the chemicals.The air blows for miles. Workers are exposed and they are getting sick and injured with no union to help them. Many are trying to have families yet are exposed to toxic chemicals.

  2. There is a calf with this same condition at our veterinary college in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada) right now too! She’s a couple months old now, been here for a week or so. It looked more like a Simmental calf to me but will do some checking into it. Interesting that there’s been 2 reports of it in Shorthorn calves.

    • and a quick check on the computer brings up the gas and oil drilling that is going on there as well…just like in Washington County, Pa. there have been calves born without eyes etc. brain cancers, malformations and leukemias in human children too..The long list of frack chemicals that are labeled teratogenic and carcinogenic include benzene and acrylonitrile, have been introduced into populated areas.


      • I don’t know where you found this information about the oil and gas industry around Saskatoon but it is certainly inaccurate as it is a minimal, at best, venture in this area; especially hydraulic fracturing

        Not to mention that the veterinary college is a referral center for basically the entirety of Western Canada, so this calf could have come from anywhere within an extraordinary distance. So your knee jerk reaction that these 2 cases that are two thousand miles apart are inherently due solely to the oil and gas industry is completely absurd and irrational.

        Before you get off on some soap box rant about whatever your own personal issues are with the oil and gas industry, maybe consider that there are completely inherited genetic mechanisms and non-teratogenic factors that can contribute to the malformation of a fetus of any species.

  3. If the heart of this calf can move back into the chest (as it sounds like), could some sort of a ‘bra’ be made to help keep it in it’s place?

    Yes, you have HEARD of more incidents.. perhaps before hydraulic fracturing began you didn’t HEAR about them as often.. the advent social media in the last bunch of years has done wonders for communication… Don’t get me wrong, I think there ARE dangers to it, but perhaps not everything can be blamed on it

    • Absolutely, there are several factors which would increase dangers of birth defects. This is why there are categories and labels for the risks. And human children are at risk also.Technology has moved faster than human comprehension. We have many past problems of contamination and denial. Even medical uses have created disasters with some chemicals. Shoe stores sadly used radioactive devices to ft shoes and caused tragic foot cancers yet the latest Scientific American must beg to save teens from tanning bed skin cancers. Inappropriate use of technology kills! These issues are really not difficult to understand. The drilling chemicals are known dangers. they are distributed widely, rather than in limited locations. The damage to water supplies and air is borne by communities and there has been reckless disregard for the consequences. areas with existing problems have been disturbed by quakes and the site upheavals. Greed depends on denial and the willingness to sacrifice community health for an industry that is dangerous, self described in gross and gambling terminology and a pyramid financial nightmare. Benzene is a danger at the gas pump. That is one of the chemicals the plastic protector is there for. Gas attendants used to develop certain characteristic cancers. No safe water-no farms.

  4. The fact that the cases noted in this article are Shorthorn, are irrelevant. It is a birth defect that can happen to any calf due to the improper formation. They are just like humans, a child can be born with a defect from two perfectly ‘normal’ parents. Just wanted to put that out there before people started assuming that this was a breed related instance.


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