If there’s one thing that most cattle and most cattle producers can count on, it’s that shots will have to be given, even in natural or organic production systems. The simple truth is that vaccines, injectable vitamins and minerals, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and other animal health products are administered to virtually all U.S. cattle.
But it’s not as simple as just inserting the needle and pushing the plunger or pulling the trigger. Injections should always be administered properly to minimize residues and injection-site lesions, and reduce risk of reactions and side effects.
George Barrington, a veterinarian with Agricultural Animal Clinic Services at Washington State University, says Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs have worked well in helping stock producers understand the importance of proper injections.
“BQA has become more important to producers and veterinarians, to ensure that we are producing a wholesome product and to decrease chances of drug residues and lesions that result in carcass cutouts or meat blemishes,” he says.
Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension educator and BQA coordinator for Idaho, says most producers are doing things correctly. “When the last National Beef Quality Audit was released, data showed that the number of abscesses from improper injections was way down,” she says.
Read the label
To keep that momentum going, it’s important to read labels. “Pharmaceutical companies are always updating their labels,” says Williams.
“You can’t assume it’s the same as what you’ve become familiar with,” she explains.
Dosage or injection sites may change. Something that was given intramuscular (IM) in the past, or with an option for IM or subcutaneous injection, may now be labeled for subcutaneous use only.
“Today we are putting all subcutaneous products in the neck, rather than into any regions behind the neck,” says Barrington. Occasionally, when you are giving multiple shots on a small calf and don’t have enough neck area, you can inject under the loose skin behind the shoulder.
It created problems with tissue damage and abscesses in the best cuts of meat, however.
It can be difficult to give injections in the neck in a runway situation, when animals stick their heads down under the next cow or move backward and forward in the old-style squeeze chutes. The newer chutes with neck extenders are helpful, reducing the risk of having your hand or arm injured, syringes smashed, or needles bent or broken.
“Handling facilities have improved, as has education of stockmen in proper ways to inject cattle. It might save some time during cattle-working to do it the old way, but you may pay for it later,” says Barrington, with problems at the packing plant such as excessive trim or condemned carcasses.
“The time spent to administer these products properly, in a site that will enhance rather than hinder Beef Quality Assurance, is worthwhile. There is also evidence that better tissue levels of certain products may be attained when administered closer to the head, compared to when they are given toward the hind end,” he says.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when giving injections to your cattle:
Cleanliness is next to godliness
“Never inject through a dirty hide,” says Barrington. “Make sure the site is clean and dry. I compare this to a human getting a flu shot; it would be unacceptable if the physician gave the injection through a dirty shirt or coat,” he says.
“We know that certain products tend to have more reactions. With others, it’s rare to see an issue even if you inject through a dirty hide. But with some products, unless the site is extremely clean, you are almost guaranteed to have a problem,” he says.
“Try to inject into a clean, dry area. You obviously can’t shave them all, but you can make sure the area is as clean as possible. Not taking time to clean off the area could result in a lot of time spent treating an animal,” says Barrington.
Occasionally, however, the animal is so dirty on both sides that even if you wipe it off, you would be injecting into a wet, dirty hide. In this situation, you need to wash the area and then dry it as best you can. If that’s not possible, you could inject into a cleaner area, like under the loose hide over the ribs, behind the elbow — in the girth area.
Williams says this is not a BQA injection site at this point, “but if I had to make a choice in a bad situation, I might use the area behind the elbow. Another thing a person might do is clean the dirty neck as best you can, go ahead and inject that animal, and then change needles,” she says
Needle length and size
Choose appropriate needle size and length for the product given, taking the injection site into consideration. A larger-diameter needle (no smaller than 16-gauge) is preferred for mature cattle with thick hides, because you’re less apt to bend or break the needle. Calves have thinner skin, and a smaller-diameter needle (18-gauge) can be used. “If the needle is too large, there’s more pain, and more chance of the product leaking back out through the larger hole,” Barrington says.
“Needle size is dependent on many things, including consistency of the product. Some are thicker and hard to force through a small needle,” he says. With a thicker product, it takes too long to give the injection, or you may have to apply so much pressure that the needle and syringe come apart in some cases. If a product is more fluid (less viscous), a smaller-gauge needle can be used.
Needle length is dictated by injection site and may also depend on the type of syringe used; longer needles are for intramuscular injections. For subcutaneous injections, when tenting the skin to slip the needle under, you’ll want a longer needle than what you’d use on a syringe gun that’s aimed at an angle into the hide.
“When injecting many cattle in a short time using a multiple-dose syringe, it’s easier to use a shorter needle placed at the proper angle, so there is minimal chance of entering muscle. Longer needles increase the chance that the product won’t be deposited subcutaneously,” Barrington says.
Location and dosage
When giving multiple injections to an animal, don’t put injections close together; space them several inches apart, or on different sides of the neck.
“If the label for an antimicrobial says to deposit no more than a certain volume in one site, there’s more likelihood of tissue residues if you put more than the recommended volume in one site,” says Barrington. The product may also be slower-absorbing.
“Residues are a concern, so follow directions. Every time you inject an animal, there is possibility of reaction. To minimize this you need proper restraint, proper needle size and proper technique, so you can administer the appropriate amount in the appropriate number of locations. If you have an 1,800-pound bull that needs a large volume of a certain product, you definitely need to follow label directions,” he explains.
“There are some products available that are intranasal or put into the mouth, rather than injections. Read labels and make sure you are doing it properly, and using the proper dosage,” Williams says.
Make sure your multidose syringe is giving an accurate dose each time. If it’s a big syringe and a small dose, such as 2 cc, is it injecting the full 2 cc’s, or is it off a little? For smaller increments, you might use a smaller syringe that’s more accurate.
“Be systematic in how you give injections, and keep records. It helps if you consistently give a certain vaccine at the same site. Knowing that you give product A in the left side of the neck, rather than randomly on either side, will help you identify what might have caused a reaction. Occasionally, certain batches of a product are associated with reactions. If you don’t know where you gave the shot, you can’t determine if that product was associated with a problem,” Barrington says.
“Often we are giving more than one injection. Always put the same vaccine in the same syringe. Mark syringes, or put color-coded tape on them so you never make a mistake,” Williams says.
Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.
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