Proper needle and syringe selection saves time, reduces pain

Proper use of syringes and needles is second nature in today’s cattle production for treating, vaccinating, flushing, aspirating or applying local anesthetic. We don’t want to leave needles in animals, just as we don’t want to cause more pain than necessary by using improper needles.


There is latitude when selecting equipment but certain principles make the job easier, save time, deliver the products correctly and are less hard on livestock. 


Needle size and length are the first decisions. Most products are now given subcutaneously so this can be accomplished with a three-quarter or one inch needle.


The gauge or bore of the needle depends on viscosity of the product to be given and the volume to be injected. 


More viscous products such as some antibiotics require a 16-gauge needle but more watery products such as selenium can be given with an 18 to 20-gauge. 


The higher the gauge or number, the smaller the bore.


An 18 or 16 gauge needle is best for cows and yearlings but 18, 19 or 20 gauge are best for calves. The smaller the bore and sharper the needle, the less hole created and less pain it should cause. 


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For intramuscular shots in cows, for products like scours vaccines and vitamin A and D or some of the older antibiotics, use a 1.5-inch needle. Strength is also important so a 16-gauge needle is needed for more viscous products. 


Always use and buy disposable needles that are sharper, have a thinner wall and cause less damage than older steel needles. Make sure they have metal hubs for use on cattle. 


When giving subcutaneous shots, the common one-handed technique involves inserting the needle at an angle into a pocket under the skin without tenting it. We can actually feel the needle drop down into the subcutaneous space. 


This technique keeps a free hand away from the sharp needle and prevents injuries around chutes from cattle lurching around. 


When mass processing or vaccinating, it is important to use automatic guns with a set dosage for accurate delivery. These can also be cleaned easily. 


Use only warm water to clean, and disassemble the syringe if necessary. Stay away from cleansing agents, especially if using the syringes again right away. 


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It’s not a bad idea to store clean syringes in the fridge to minimize the chance of bacteria multiplying. 


Proper restraint of cattle, as in a squeeze chute, is necessary in anything bigger than newborn calves. Always check for the needle after giving an injection. 


Use new needles when giving intravenous shots or between groups of animals. The Verified Beef Program recommends changing needles after every 10 animals when vaccinating. 


Use a new needle to extract vaccine or antibiotic from the bottle and have a sharps container available. 


Needles can be purchased in packages of 100 so don’t hesitate to have a variety of gauges and lengths at the ready.


Read labels to insure the product is applied where indicated. More products are now labeled for subcutaneous use, which contributes to better meat quality.


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Always have epinephrine or an emergency kit close by in case of allergic reaction.

Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.