Dart Decisions

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.


Bring up the topic of medicated darts among a group of cattle producers and veterinarians and you’ll hear a range of strong opinions.

Opponents maintain that darts, or “remote delivery devices” (RDD) as manufacturers call them, should rarely, if ever, be used to treat cattle with antibiotics. They site potential problems including hitting an inappropriate injection site, injecting the wrong tissue such as into a muscle or vein instead of subcutaneous, inconsistent dosage that could contribute to antibiotic resistance, safety and other concerns.

Proponents stress that RDD can offer convenience and protect animal welfare, allowing treatment in remote pastures where capturing, restraining and/or transporting an animal for hand injection can create additional stress.

For detailed background on the topic, read “Dart or No Dart” in the September 2016 issue of Bovine Veterinarian.

Over the past few years, much of the argument on either side has drawn primarily on anecdotal evidence, as research data remains scarce. Two recent reports add to the knowledge base, but with somewhat conflicting results, will not definitively end the debate.

Results of one recent study, led by Dr. David Bechtol and the Agri Research Center, Canyon, Texas, indicate producers can, with the appropriate equipment, consistently deliver subcutaneous injections with RDD with results similar to hand injections.

For this test, the researchers used saline injections with food-grade blue dye for visual documentation of distribution of the injected solution. All injections were in the BQA-approved injection sites in the neck. The team used 48 Angus-cross feedyard steers, with each receiving two different subcutaneous injection treatments to either side of the neck. The researchers compared injections using:

  • An industry-standard ½-inch 16-gauge needle for hand injection.
  • An RDD equipped with a ½-inch 14-gauge needle.
  • An RDD equipped with a ¾-inch tri-port 14-gauge needle.

Of the total 68 RDDs delivered, 68 detonated, while two partially deployed with one more so than the other.

According to the research report, the study met its objective of evaluating an RDD equipped with ½-inch 14-gauge versus a ¾-inch 14-gauge tri-port needle in comparison to a hand syringe injection equipped with a standard ½-inch 16-gauge needle. The gross and histopathology results showed an RDD equipped with a ½-inch needle having good skin penetration thus providing subcutaneous injection with no muscle damage, whereas the ¾-inch tri-port needle had good skin penetration with majority subcutaneous injection: however, did have some minimal muscle penetration. The researchers conclude that the RDD equipped with a ½-inch 14-gauge needle is adequate for subcutaneous injections with least amount of muscle penetration and equal to that of a hand syringe injection if the hand syringe is administered with proper care. Read more about this study here.

In contrast, a study from Kansas State University’s Beef Cattle Institute led by Dr. Hans Coetzee, found inconsistencies. In this study, researchers used RDD to inject cattle with Draxxin (tulathroymycin). Of 15 animals treated using RDD, for of the darts failed to deliver the drug.  In other cases, researchers found trace amounts of the drug in the animals, but not at efficacious levels. They also found that darted animals had a lower overall exposure to Draxxin compared to animals that were held in a squeeze chute and injected under the skin.

The researchers also point out that the test animals were restrained with rope halters, with an experienced veterinarian firing the darts from a dead rest at a fixed distance. And yet, in one-third of the treated animals, the dart hit outside the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA)-compliant injection-site area of the neck.

More research is needed, but in the meantime, veterinarians and producers should limit their use of RDD treatments to necessity, rather than convenience. If you have instances where RDD seems the best choice, take reasonable steps to ensure compliance with BQA guidelines. Comply fully with product labels, including mode of injection, total dosage and maximum dosage per injection site. Practice with the dart gun to ensure consistent ability to hit a small target at an appropriate range. Keep detailed records of all treatments, and if possible, recover all used darts for safety and to verify the dose was injected. Follow all gun-safety rules, such as keeping the safety on until ready to fire, always pointing the rifle in a safe direction, knowing your target and what is beyond your target and always treating every gun as if it is loaded.