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Understanding the Five W's of Cattle Injections: Who, What, When, Where & Why


Over the last two decades, great strides have been made in standardizing beef cattle injection techniques and methods. Today, there are animal injection best practices that have become widely known in the beef industry as “just the right thing to do.” These cattle injection techniques are recommended to help farmers produce safe beef for the consumer and maintain Canada’s high reputation for beef quality

How to Inject a Beef Animal

  • Securely restrain the animal.
  • Use the appropriate size and length of needle.
  • Use the subcutaneous route whenever the product label allows.
  • Only inject 10 ml (cc) maximum into any one site, or as per label.
  • Change needles when bent or dull and after every 10-15 uses.
  • Never straighten or reuse a bent needle.
  • Leave a hand-width of space between injections.
  • Never inject in the armpit of the animal (i.e. branding, spring processing).
Source: Verified Beef Production Plus Producer Manual

Route of Administration for Beef Cattle Injections

When label recommendations are followed, a beef animal’s ability to absorb, distribute, break down and excrete a drug are predictable. It is when those label directions are not followed that we run into concerns. There are distinct differences in the rate of absorption of drugs depending on how they are delivered. If a product is given incorrectly, there is no guarantee that the drug will be effective.  

Route of Administration (ROA): The route by which a drug is taken into the body (i.e. subcutaneous, intramuscular, oral, intravenous, topical, intranasal).

  • Incorrect ROA could lead to underdosing, which is an animal welfare and production concern when a therapeutic level may not be achieved. This will leave cattle vulnerable to the disease being treated or prevented. Underdosing is also a concern from an antibiotic stewardship standpoint, as chronically underdosing antimicrobial drugs can lead to resistance.  
  • The ROA also determines a beef animal’s ability to eliminate the product, affecting withdrawal recommendations, and potentially leading to drug residues being detected in meat.  
  • Subcutaneous injections (Sub-Q or SQ) are placed just under the skin, as opposed to an intramuscular injection where the medication is placed directly into the muscle. Subcutaneous injections are generally less irritating and are the preferred ROA.  
  • Pharmaceutical companies are continually updating products and labels, so become familiar with the current label recommendations and use the subcutaneous route whenever possible. 

Volume Recommendations for Cattle Injections

The recommended maximum volume per injection site is 10 ml (cc) per site. Increasing the volume of medication injected into one location will impede a beef animal’s ability to absorb and excrete the medication. 

  • An increased volume can lead to a pocket of unabsorbed medication being left in the tissue. This decreases the efficacy of the treatment and could also be detected as drug residue in the carcass of a beef animal.  
  • A lower volume injection also ensures that the tissue can effectively recover from the irritation of the medication, decreasing the chances of the animal developing an injection site lesion. 
beef animal injection site lesion

Injection site lesions (ISL) cost the beef industry $0.56/head or $1.63 million in 2016 compared to $0.21/hd or $662,951 in 2011 due to higher prevalence rates. There are many steps that can be taken to reduce or even eliminate ISL’s. 

Proper Location for Beef Cattle Injections

Only inject beef animals in the recommended safe zone on the neck, never in the rump or loin. This ensures that, if an animal has a reaction to the product and develops a lesion, it can easily be trimmed away from the less valuable chuck, rather than damaging the more valuable round cuts.   

cattle injection zones
butcher's guide to oven roast tenderness of beef cuts
Source: Canada Beef
  • Injecting outside of the safe zone in the neck can potentially cause injury and even death to the animal being treated. The nuchal ligament is responsible for supporting the head of a beef animal, and if it is damaged via an injection that animal can suffer severe and permanent paralysis. The same result can occur if the spinal cord is inadvertently hit. The jugular furrow contains the jugular vein and carotid artery. If medications are mistakenly injected directly into the blood stream, animals may suffer severe drug reactions. 
  • A hand-width of space between medication injections will ensure the tissue can adequately recover from the injection and prevent medications from comingling. If medications mix within the animal, they can interact and cause drug reactions, or even inactivate each other, rendering them useless.  

Best Needle Size for Beef Cattle Injections

Choose the appropriate needle size to ensure the product can be delivered while causing the minimum disruption to the tissue. Always choose the smallest gauge needle that can still effectively deliver the type of medication needed. Disposable needles with an aluminum hub, rather than plastic, are preferred. 

Class of CattleRoute of InjectionNeedle GaugeNeedle Length
Calves less than 500 poundsIntramuscular20-181 inch
Subcutaneous 20-18 ½ – inch
Cattle >500 pounds Intramuscular18-161 – 1½ inch
Subcutaneous 18-16½ – ¾ inch 
syringe and needles for beef cattle injections for vaccines or medications

Good Hygiene Methods for Cattle Injections

Keep equipment clean and in good working order to prevent unnecessary tissue trauma and the possibility of localized abscesses.  

  • Never inject through a dirty hide, which will only drag bacteria and debris into the tissue and create a perfect environment for abscesses.  
  • Burred, bent and dull needles will also increase the likelihood of damage and abscessing. This can be prevented by using a quality disposable needle that can be changed anytime damage is evident, every 10-15 injections and every time you enter a multidose vial. 
safe restraint in a chute for giving cattle injections, vaccinations and medications

Safe Restraint for Cattle Injections

Cattle that are not properly restrained are more likely to suffer from tissue trauma, incorrect injection technique and location, and are at a higher risk for needle breaks. Ensure that all animals being treated are safely restrained in a chute that allows the processor easy access to the neck and prevents unnecessary movement in the animal being treated. 

A little knowledge goes a long way, and understanding the reasoning behind each recommendation can help instill accountability and ensure producers are diligent in the day-to-day tasks involved in raising cattle for food. Little things done right every day safeguard food quality and ensure Canadian food safety remains at a high standard.  


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