Take Your Shot: Are Dart Guns an Effective Solution for Treatment?

Take Your Shot: Are Dart Guns an Effective Solution for Treatment?

By Jaclyn Krymowski

Animal care, especially administering antibiotics or other treatments in remote farm locations or hard-to-navigate areas has proven challenging as long as we’ve raised cattle. Traditionally cutting and roping each individual was the only option. But with remote delivery devices (basically dart guns for vaccinations and antibiotics), that task is quickly changing.

Minimizing handling stress and disease of cattle is a major objective for which cattle ranchers strive
While roping, retraining and working facilities can accomplish this while avoiding as much stress as possible, there are instances where animals are severely sick or lame that make this impossible. Some are now using remote delivery devices, or RDDs to overcome this obstacle and make the whole task easier.

Using Dart Guns with Cattle
In March 2023, the USDA conducted an updated study to understand and determine the use of dart guns in the beef industry, particularly cow-calf operations. Results indicated that dart use varied considerably depending on operation size, with larger operations using them more frequently(32.8%) than medium (15.8%) or small (4.3%) operations.

The study noted that “pneumatic darts can be used to administer antibiotics and other injectable medications to cattle to reduce the need to run animals through a chute or use other immobilization practices such as roping.”

RDDs can also be a very viable option in many instances where the safety of animals and people is a concern.

There are a few options for remote delivery devices, including pole syringes or dart delivery systems (pneumatic, CO2, or .22 charged), as outlined by Heidi Carroll, former South Dakota State University extension livestock stewardship field specialist and Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) coordinator in her bulletin, Discussing the Dart Delivery Method for Treating Cattle.

To take advantage of the benefits of using remote delivery devices, include a safer option for both rancher and animal, along with providing medication to the animal without restraint. At times it is more convenient with a quicker delivery and easier administration to a poor-tempered animal.

That said, it does have its limitations, particularly with certain treatments that require multiple injections or large amounts of product, as it can only hold so much volume. Therefore, it should not be resorted to for treatments that only have small doses.

Taking Precautions
The official BQA guidelines and some seasoned veterinarians do want to instill a healthy dose of precautions for the industry before fully embracing darts.

For example, a remote delivery does not guarantee that the drug is administered in the proper injection site. It can also not ensure the delivery method is accurate, as with products that must be administered exclusively subcutaneously.

As with any other veterinary device, maintaining the equipment for sterility is another big concern. Because the needles and syringes are small and being shot at high volume, everything must be rigorously inspected for safe delivery to reduce the risk of injury like abscesses and bruising.

There is some debate in the beef industry on the accuracy and delivery of medications through remote delivery devices, and especially in regards to meeting the BQA guidelines, Carroll notes. Do they ensure the best welfare of the animal? Are they able to reach the proper injection site, use the correct route and dosage? What about the potential for broken needles?

The concern with broken needles is that they can become lodged inside the muscle and could be a hazard during processing or become lodged in the animal and cause infection or abscesses.

There are also concerns about meat quality. Besides broken needles, failing to inject at the proper site (usually the neck region) could damage high quality cuts. This can happen easily when firing from long distances or if an animal moves unexpectedly. Injection site blemishes in high quality meat areas are no small matter. They already cause the industry massive losses, more than $4 million according to estimates.

“Many producers appreciate the availability of a treatment method that can be applied in the pasture, with no sorting, capture or restraint of animals required,” writes Troy Smith, in an article carried in a 2020 issue of the Angus Beef Bulletin entitled, Darting BQA Problems. “However, dart guns are also used to treat cattle being grown or finished under confinement. Rather than sorting animals and putting them in a chute, dart treatment is applied in the feeding pen.”

Future of RDDs
What does the future of remote delivery devices look like? They are definitely not about to entirely go away in the near future. And concerns will exist even if the current ones are addressed.

Educating and setting an example of when and how to use them can potentially help to reduce the percentage of times they are misused or used when another alternative is available.

Just as all the other technology in the industry continues to grow and develop, there will most likely be changes and more alternatives as we go. Continuing to educate and promote proper usage will be the biggest key (and potential challenge) for ensuring that dart guns (and other RDDs) are utilized to their potential in the appropriate situation.

While remote delivery devices like dart guns offer a valuable tool for specific situations, such as treating sick animals in remote locations, their use shouldn’t become routine. Prioritizing effectiveness and timeliness is crucial and responsible cattle producers should avoid using them in contexts where proper handling facilities exist. Ultimately, developing a clear protocol for when and when not to use remote delivery devices is essential for ensuring animal well-being and responsible antibiotic use.

Skip to content