Knowing proper injection techniques can save you from discomfort and harm, says vet
No one giving injections to cattle wants to accidentally get stuck with a needle; most producers will do everything in their power not to. And yet it happens, and the results can be deadly. Just ask Dr. Cody Creelman.
“A producer was treating a sick calf from the cab of his truck. He was filling up a syringe with an antibiotic that is known to be cardiotoxic to humans,” says the Airdrie, Alta.-based veterinarian and educator.
“The syringe just slipped out of his hands and dropped. He went to catch it but in the process he injected three cc’s of this cardiotoxic drug into his body.”
Cardiotoxic products can damage the heart. Fortunately, those three cc’s were not enough to seriously harm or kill the producer, but the situation could have been much worse. Not all injectable products for cattle are fatal, but ultimately you don’t want to stick yourself with any of them, says Creelman.
Although there is no 100 per cent foolproof way to prevent human injury when injecting cattle with vaccines or antibiotics, producers can take steps to minimize the possibility.
One of the most crucial ways to prevent injury is using proper injection methods, and in the vast majority of cases today that means refining your subcutaneous (SubQ) injection technique. Decisions such as whether to inject with one hand or two, using personal protective equipment and general preparedness can all go a long way towards human safety, says Creelman.
“I think personal protective equipment is still often overlooked in agriculture. Using latex or rubber gloves to prevent us from getting skin contact with some of these pharmaceuticals adds an extra layer of protection. Using safety glasses when we’re working with some of them can also help,” he says.
“Preparedness, cleanliness, organization — all of those things go a really, really long way. Any of the auto-injections that I have seen could have usually been mitigated just through a little pre-planning and being organized.”
One hand or two?
When producers give injections to cattle today, chances are the technique they’re using is SubQ injection into the neck. It’s been shown to cause less carcass damage and has become a cornerstone of most quality assurance programs.
One of the most common questions from beef producers about SubQ injection is whether to use one hand or two. Both have their upsides and downsides, says Creelman. The two-handed method is easier, as one hand can administer the needle while the other can pull the animal’s skin, creating the “tenting” necessary for SubQ injections.
However, the one-handed method is preferable for human safety. “Where is the animal when we give the injection? Typically they are in a chute system or crush, so having two hands in a steel contraption with this 2,000-pound beast inside is usually not a good idea. If we could eliminate one hand from the scenario, that’s just safer.”
So how do you create that necessary tenting without the aid of a second hand? It takes some finesse but it can be done, says Creelman.
“What we hope to be able to do with that one-handed technique is inject between a 35 to 40 degree angle — perpendicular to the animal — into the neck,” he says.
“As that needle has entered we slightly roll our wrist so the skin is somewhat hanging off of that needle. That way we know we are in that nice tent pocket and the needle isn’t embedded into the muscular layer.”
With the tent intact, the product is injected into the SubQ space. Then, says Creelman, you take a short breather.
“Instead of pulling that needle out really quickly we just pause for half a second to allow that fluid to completely disperse through that subcutaneous space. Then when we pull our needle we’re not going to get what I call ‘blowback’ from that pressurized injection going into the animal.”
Human safety may ultimately be more important, but improper injection technique can also stick producers in another place: the wallet. And that hurts in its own way.
It’s become industry standard to always give SubQ and intramuscular injections in the neck, says Creelman. That way, even when scarring occurs it will only affect lower-value meat such as hamburger. The traditional rump injection, meanwhile, can damage the best cuts of meat and cost the producer at sale time.
However, neck injections come with their own challenges, especially when cattle are being vaccinated with multiple vaccines and antibiotics simultaneously. Creelman suggests spacing injections four inches (or about the length of your hand) away from each other. If there isn’t enough room to make all of those injections on one side of the neck, use the other side.
“A modified live vaccine is a live virus which can be very sensitive to the environment around it. If you gave 10 cc’s of an antibiotic very close to that injection site you are essentially de-activating that vaccine.”
Injecting vaccines too close together can also overwhelm the animal’s immune system, says Creelman. “If we’re overwhelming the lymph system with multiple vaccinations because we gave them all in the same spot, we might not be getting the optimal immune response.”
Jeff Melchior is a central Alberta-based freelance journalist specializing in agricultural topics.