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Taking aim at dart gun pros and cons

Effective yes, but they need to be used with the proper diagnosis and product

A herd of Black Angus Cattle

Remote drug delivery (RDD) devices are becoming more common in some modern cow-calf operations. The older-style capture guns used in the past were generally used by veterinarians to tranquilize and “capture” cattle needing further treatment. Tranquilized animals could then be loaded and transported if that was necessary or put in a smaller compound if further treatment was necessary.

Capture guns have also been used by veterinarians to capture escaped stock in areas where there are no collection corrals. Wildlife officers also use these same capture guns with potent drugs to catch and relocate wildlife.

But there are advantages and disadvantages on relying on these RDD for treating cattle — primarily those running on large pastures where the ability to restrain and examine cattle is limited. Strong, elusive and fractious bulls may even see these devices used on them.

Initially the older capture guns were cumbersome and used hard metal darts that could inflict lots of damage themselves. Today’s modern RDD (capture rifles and handguns) shoot lightweight darts that are loaded easily and are very accurate.

The two makes I am most familiar with are the Dan-Inject and the Pneu-Dart systems. Both have darts that can carry up to 10 cc of product each and have projection systems that accurately deliver product up to 20 to 30 metres away. Wind must be taken into account when firing these.

Proper diagnosis/proper treatment

The first question to ask with these devices is if a proper diagnosis can be made from a distance, with no close examination and identification of the animal. Secondly, does the delivery device put the product where it needs to be according to protocols from a Verified Beef Production standpoint? Can we get the proper dosage delivered?

If you are going to use products, especially prescription drugs, in these devices your veterinarian should work out the protocols for the specific conditions you can treat with these remote devices.

Many of today’s modern medicines are effective products at low dosages, are long lasting, and most are approved for subcutaneous delivery.

The darts can be used with shorter needles so although not a guarantee, most of the product can get delivered subcutaneously. Aiming for the side of a mature animal’s neck or shoulder area is a decent target area with these accurate rifles.

A producers needs to take into account when darting a calf, yearling, cow or bull, the skin thickness is very different between these groups. Be ever cognizant of location of the jugular vein. Most products, if given intravenously, are most likely to create a severe allergic reaction. Always have epinephrine on hand any time antibiotics or other products are being injected.

If RDD hits in the shoulder area, I have seen instances where animals limp for a few days. The shoulder blade may have been hit. If possible, never dart cattle while they are on the run.

Effective tools

From our producer and rancher viewpoints these dart guns offer easy and timely treatments, save labour and place minimal stress on the cattle. If the correct treatment is given one day or even several hours earlier than it would normally be, treatment response is improved. Fewer treatments may be necessary and it can be much less stressful than roping and stretching the cattle out for treatment.

The darts fall out shortly after contact so can be gathered up. Some darts are for one-time usage, others are reusable. They are colourful so are seldom lost. One needs to work out with your veterinarian standard operating procedures for common pasture conditions with prescriptions as necessary.

As a veterinarian, there is also concern we might have some cattle treated unnecessarily, and antimicrobial products may be used with a lack of proper knowledge and usage. Since the diagnosis is made while looking at an animal from a distance, the wrong diagnosis could be made.

With lameness issues, we can observe cattle for a couple days for natural improvement and then treat if necessary. Carry a good set of binoculars so you can at least make a good visual exam. One person doing all the locating, identifying, diagnosing and treating is a cost-effective approach. But it is important to understand the labels, withdrawal times of product, and don’t over treat or treat unnecessarily. Always work with your veterinarian when planning to use an RDD device.

It is imperative you get the ID of the animals and record the treatment and also record where the animal was hit. Have very legible ear tags making it is easier to identify animals with the naked eye or binoculars.

For more serious ailments that require further testing or diagnosing, it is advisable to catch and remove the animal to a treatment area. These are the sort of decisions the person in charge of animal health must deal with on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis.

Overall the RDD devices offer lots of potential use and labour savings for you producers. Be aware there are some negatives that include over treatment or product not delivered where it should be. All the negatives deserve consideration.

Although you don’t need a firearms safety course to use an RDD, be careful because they are like a real gun. A firearms safety course may be a good idea for anyone who has never handled guns.

The RDDs may have more of a role into the future as they may be used for vaccinations, or for giving nutritive supplements in some instances. If necessary to treat and timeliness is critical, the RDD may be a useful tool, but know your equipment and proceed with caution.

This article was originally published in the June 6, 2017 issue of Grainews.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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