by: Heather Smith Thomas

Cattle are often given injections—vaccines, antibiotics, medications to help reduce inflammation, injectable vitamins or minerals, etc. These should always be administered properly in order to minimize tissue damage and reduce the risks for reactions and side effects.

George M. Barrington, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Associate Professor and Section Head of Agricultural Animal Clinic Services at Washington State University) says that Beef Quality Assurance programs have worked very well in helping educate stockmen about the importance of proper injections. “BQA has become more and more important to producers and veterinarians, to ensure that we are producing a wholesome product, with no lesions that result in cut-outs in the carcass, or meat blemishes,” he says.

“The BQA program has been followed very closely by the companies producing the vaccines and other biologics such as antibiotics. More and more companies are formulating vaccine products that allow for subcutaneous administration, and lessen the need for intramuscular injections. There are also some intranasal products,” he says.

“Similarly, with the antimicrobials, most of these no longer have to be given intramuscularly. Flunixin meglumine (Banamine and generic equivalents--which apart from aspirin is the only NSAID actually labeled for use in cattle) should be given intravenously, presumably due to residue issues. Giving it SubQ or IM is not an option for cattle producers,” he says.

“Today we are also moving more toward putting all subcutaneous products in the neck, rather than into any regions behind the neck,” says Barrington. Occasionally, on a small calf if you are giving multiple “shots” and don't have enough neck area, you could inject under the loose skin either in front of or behind the shoulder. The important thing is to never put any injections into the hindquarters. The rump was the traditional location for intramuscular injections—because it was the easiest place to reach when processing a lot of cattle through a chute. It was much easier to inject the hindquarters than trying to work around the head, but also created some problems with tissue damage or abscesses in the best cuts of meat.

It can be difficult to give all injections in the neck, when animals have leeway to stick their heads down under the next cow in an alleyway, or to ram backward and forward in the old style squeeze chutes. The newer chutes with neck extenders are a big help, reducing the risk of having your hand/arm injured, syringes smashed or needles bent or broken.

“Handling facilities have improved a lot in the past decade, as has general education of stockmen in proper ways to inject cattle. It might save some time and money during the cattle-working to do it the old way, but you may pay for it later,” says Barrington. Intramuscular injections may lead to problems at the packing plant, with excessive trim, or even condemned carcasses.

“The time spent to administer these products properly, in a site that will enhance rather than hinder Beef Quality Assurance, is definitely worthwhile. The feedlots will be viewed in a more favorable light by the packing plants, due to less cutout and less damage to the tissues,” he says.

There is even evidence that better tissue levels of certain products may be attained when these products are administered closer to the head. “There may be better responses to some vaccines, and improved tissue levels of some antibiotics when they are given in the neck, compared to when they are given back toward the hind end,” he says.

“There was a lot of work done on BQA by a research group at Colorado State University about 10 years ago. Here at WSU, Dr. Dale Moore is involved with helping organize BQA training for producers, via our extension service. There are also regional BQA extension programs that are very beneficial,” he says. Most producers recognize that these recommendations are in their best interests, so they are very receptive.

“These regional programs are great and I hope more and more producers will use them. Our goal is to get as many people aware of this as possible, so we can produce the best quality product, and safest for the consumer. It's an advantage to the producer, and also to the consumer,” he says.

Some of the things that are important when giving injections are choosing appropriate needle size and length for the product being given, taking the injection site into consideration. Calves have thinner skin than adult cattle and often a smaller diameter needle can be used for calves. “If the needle is too large, the animal won't like it (there's more pain), and more chance of the product leaking back out through the larger hole,” he says.

“Needle size is dependent on many things, including the consistency of the product being injected. Some are thicker, and hard to force through a small needle,” says Barrington. It will take too long to give the injection, or you may have to apply so much pressure that the needle and syringe “blow” apart on some types of syringes. Most products are fairly fluid, however, and a smaller gauge needle can be used.

“It's also important to not inject through a dirty hide. Make sure the site is clean and dry. I compare this to a human getting a flu shot; it would not be acceptable if the physician shoved the needle through your work coat. If you inject an animal through a manure-covered hide, you run a bigger risk of more reactions or infections,” he says.

“We know that we have more problems with certain products. With some, it's rare to see an issue even if you inject through a dirty hide. Others, unless the site is extremely clean, you are almost guaranteed to have a problem. In the past, an injectable dewormer that was used in horses was associated with a number of serious adverse reactions (such as clostridial infections at the injection site) if the hide was not adequately cleaned before giving the injection. On the other had, certain antibiotics rarely caused this type of problem. So reactions are often product-related,” he says.

“As a general rule, always try to inject into a clean, dry area. You obviously can't shave them all, but you definitely can make sure the area is as clean as possible. Injecting through a dirty hide is asking for trouble. It may save you 10 seconds when you do it, but could result in a lot of time spent treating an animal,” says Barrington.

“When vaccinating a group of cattle, it's best to change needles and use a new one for each animal, but very few producers do this. There are certainly some blood-borne diseases that can be transmitted from animal to animal via needles, and our goal is to not do this, by utilizing proper technique and new needles for each animal. But with multiple-dose syringes this isn't as feasible; they are famous for increasing the potential for transmitting diseases—everything from bovine leucosis virus to anaplasmosis,” says Barrington.

When using multi-dose syringes, at least take time to change needles every time you refill the syringe. This helps ensure that you are using a sharp needle rather than one that's become dull. A dull needle creates more pain and tissue damage.

“Also, it might be harder to use a 1½ inch needle when giving a SubQ injection with a multi-dose syringe than a shorter needle. With a longer needle you have to pick up a pinch of skin to slip the needle in underneath,” he explains. Thus you have to be a little more careful in how you give the injection, taking time to tent the skin or angle the needle appropriately.

“When injecting a lot of cattle in a short time, 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,” he says.

When giving multiple injections to an animal, it's also important to not give two injections too close together; they should be spaced several inches apart or on different sides of the neck. “Read labels. The companies do a lot of work to produce these products, and go through a lot of testing to make sure that there are minimal side effects. They determine the optimal volume, and handling of the product. They've spent a lot of time and money to ensure the best results, so you need to follow their recommendations,” he says. It doesn't pay to shortcut these directions.

“If the label for an antimicrobial says to deposit no more than a certain volume in one site, this is there for a reason. 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 big issue, so it's important to follow label directions. Every time you inject an animal there is possibility of more reaction, so to minimize this you need proper restraint, proper needle size, and proper technique, so that you can administer the appropriate amount in the appropriate number of locations. If you have an 1800 pound bull that needs a large amount of a certain product, you definitely need to follow label directions,” he explains.

“Be systematic in how you give injections, and keep records. It helps if you consistently give a certain vaccine product at the same site, for instance. Knowing that you give product A in the left side of the neck, rather than randomly giving it on either side, will help you identify what might have caused a reaction, if a reaction occurs. Record keeping for the producer (combined with a system of giving certain products at certain locations on the animals) would be very helpful in determining which product may have resulted in a reaction. Occasionally certain lots or batches of a product have been associated with reactions or other problems. If you don't know where you gave the shot, you wouldn't be able to determine if a product was associated with a problem,” he says. Good record keeping is helpful.

“The whole effort toward education through the BQA program is a very important one, and will have a wide range of benefits—from the animals, to the producers, to the consumers,” he says.

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