Beef conference delves into remote delivery devices

Jason Douglas’ insights into the world of remote drug delivery devices, known as RDDs, or dart guns for cattle caught the attention of numerous cattlemen at the Oklahoma State University Beef Industry Conference Oct. 19.

Douglas, of Hinton, Oklahoma, has worked in animal health distribution for the past 20 years focusing on veterinarian, stocker, cow/calf and feedlot customers. A 1998 OSU animal science graduate, he has more than 15 years of experience with RDD systems in the treatment of cattle in non-confined, pasture-based settings and currently serves on the advisory board for Pneu-Dart, a major manufacturer of RDDs.

“Probably around 15 years ago, we started seeing these dart guns show up in the cattle industry,” Douglas said. “They’d been around in other capacities before that, particularly for wild game hunting and sedation purposes.”

Dart guns were brought into the cattle industry not by the manufacturers, but by the producers. They quickly became in high demand for their convenience to the cattlemen.

 “Even though cattlemen as a whole are proponents of the second amendment, it’s not like we get a kick out of shooting cattle,” Douglas said. “The purpose of the dart guns are to make a difficult job more efficient.”

RDDs were brought into the cattle industry to save time for the producer, deliver medication promptly and without the proper facilities, prevent stress on the animal and keep both the cattlemen and the stock safe.

“Their large scale adaptation or use in the beef cattle industry started primarily in Oklahoma,” Douglas said. “I know that because the manufacturers reached out to us 10 years ago and asked just what we were doing with all these darts down here and if we had that many rhinos in Oklahoma.”

Push-back has been mounted against the use of RDDs from three sectors of the cattle industry including meat packers, feed yards and academia.

“Packers put pressure on feed yards and feed yard consultants—they say we need to ban them or limit their use,” Douglas explained. “Academia hopes for more research and studies of the effectiveness which have only begun recently.”

From the packer standpoint the major push-back has been because of damage to animal tissue if RDDs are not used properly. The packers can really only trace cattle back to the feedlots and neither wants to accept the financial nor ethical responsibilities of mistakes that most likely occurred at the cow-calf producer level. Academia on the other hand is driven by an obligation to understand the technology, whether or not it is being used appropriately and if it is for the good of the animal and the industry. Douglas knows the equipment works if producers are educated on how, why, which and where.

“This genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “This technology is out there and it’s not going away. The ground work has been laid that it can be done effectively and within the realm of BQA acceptability if we can teach others the correct way.”

With great power…

RDDs are generally a rifle and they come in two basic forms: cartridge fired, which shoots a .22 caliber blank and air-powered, or CO2, which is essentially a modified pellet rifle. Pistol RDDs exist but Douglas discourages their use from an accuracy standpoint. Douglas says knowledge of which is which and what velocity they should be shot at are some of the issues that need to be touched on as an industry and develop standards for their use.

In studies, when the dart was fully deployed and shot at the right velocity, right distance is the right RDD, Douglas said. “And 100 percent were injected subcutaneously.”

Cartridge-fired RDD rifles come with adjustable or nonadjustable gas ports. With cartridge-fired you load a .22 caliber blank and when you pull the trigger all the charge goes straight into that dart and projects it toward the animal.

“So if I want to adjust the velocity I have to move to and from the animal in distance to adjust the speed at which it is going to hit that animal,” Douglas said. “I love to shoot long distance, but that is not how we need to be treating these animals. The dart only needs to be moving 115 feet per second and that’s not very fast. These used incorrectly are actually capable of an exit wound.”

When it comes to .22 caliber charges, there are several types. They are color-coded one to six from least force to most force. It is imperative to pair the tools with the right ammunition.

“Every catastrophic failure that we’ve been able to find in the industry and trace back to who did it and how it happened has come from either choosing the wrong gun and or the wrong charge,” Douglas explained. “If you use the wrong gun with the wrong charge you can get into the realm of shooting rhinoceroses somewhere on an African safari.”

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Co2 RDDs are capable of generating velocities high enough to deliver a dart at close range but do not shoot with enough force to cause major damage. Conveniently, you can adjust the velocity by how much you pump the rifle and also by the dial on the back, which has an adjustable gas port.

“So if a calf walks closer to me or farther away I can adjust the amount of pressure,” Douglas explained.

However, if not hit hard enough on the animal’s neck it might not penetrate the skin; too hard and a hematoma or bruise destroying tissue beneath the surface can occur. This is where packers raise their hands in protest.

“If you get bruising you are going to waste a lot of your money,” Douglas advised. “The proper use of RDDs has a major financial benefit.”

Additionally, if the shot is given incorrectly, the manner in which that medicine is supposed to be delivered—most likely subcutaneous—will not be achieved. And it makes no sense to spend money on medications that are entering the animal’s system through the wrong pathways.

“We’ve got a huge problem if we’re choosing to use drugs through this method that weren’t designed to do so,” Douglas added.

Knowledge is key

Douglas says there are some medications that should never be used with RDDs including: NSAIDS (Flunixin Meglumine or Banamine), vaccines because of fragility of the medications and Ceftiofur (Excede).

“Unless you’re Chris Kyle, I don’t think you can get that dart into the ear of the calf like you’re supposed to and that’s the only place Excede can be given, period.”

On a more serious note, Douglas warns cattlemen to never use the drug Micotil with RDDs.

“Not only is this a loaded firearm, but it’s a loaded firearm with a medication that is dangerous to humans,” he said. “Micotil is not to be played around with especially in an RDD.”

Generally speaking for the size and volume of dart syringes producers would be using on their operations they will be roughly 3 to 10 cubic centimeters—3 being on the small end of light calves and the bigger animals in the 5- to 10-cubic centimeter range. Douglas said necropsy results and laboratory evaluations support the conclusion that remote delivery devices equipped with half-inch, 14-gauge needles are adequate for subcutaneous injections with the least amount of muscle penetration.

Douglas places a great deal of importance on the storage of darts. The tips are equipped with a hard gelatin collars designed to dissolve if exposed to heat and moisture so when it hits the animal’s neck it will not bounce out and allows the medication to be administered easily. In three to six minutes, the gelatin dissolves and the dart falls out. Douglas says he often gets calls from and cattlemen troubleshoots their issues with RDD failure. He says storing darts in direct sunlight or high humidity is a common mistake because the gelatin softens and the medicine will not be injected. He suggests storing darts in a dark container, such as a Pringles can with silicon packets to keep sunlight and moisture away.

Douglas recommends practice darts for cattlemen concerned with trajectory of subcutaneous versus intramuscular shot delivery as well as velocity. He says ballistics charts are also available online and details distances and charges appropriate for RDDs.

According to Douglas, RDDs can be an efficient way for cattlemen to maintain their herd, but only if they are well-educated on the judicious use of RDDs and the possible negative outcome if dart guns are used incorrectly.

“In this case, it’s the Indian, not the arrow. Understanding the equipment out there and how to use it is paramount.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].