Tips on Properly Giving Cattle Injections

How to Give a Cow a Shot

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Tips on Properly Giving Cattle Injections

Cattle injections are often necessary — vaccines, antibiotics, injectable vitamins, scours, etc. These should always be administered properly to be effective, minimize residues in the meat if the animal will be butchered later, minimize injection site lesions, and reduce the risks for adverse reactions.

Read Labels

Always read labels when using injectable products, to know whether they are meant to be given intramuscularly (IM), subcutaneously (SubQ) or intravenously (IV). Before attempting to give an IV injection, have your veterinarian show you how. The label will also indicate proper dosage. Vaccines are generally a two- or five-cc dose. The dose for a particular vaccine will be the same for every animal whereas dose for an antibiotic will vary depending on size/weight of the animal.


Select the proper needle for the job when giving cattle injections. The length will be different when giving intramuscular injections versus subcutaneous injections, and can also vary depending on your technique. When tenting the skin to slip the needle underneath, you’ll want a longer needle than you’d use on a syringe gun that’s aimed at an angle into the hide. Use a larger-diameter needle for thick fluid that won’t go readily through a smaller needle. A large-diameter needle (no smaller than 16 gauge) is also best for mature cattle with thick hides (less apt to bend or break the needle) and a smaller needle (such as 18 gauge) for calves with thinner skin.

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If you are vaccinating multiple animals, change needles after every 10 animals. One way to remember to do this would be to change needles every time you refill a multi-dose syringe. If you have a 20-cc syringe gun and it’s a two-cc dose, it’s easy to just change needles the next time you fill it.

Always use a new, sterile needle to draw out vaccine (or any other product) so you don’t contaminate the contents of the bottle. Needles can become dull quickly. If you put a needle through the rubber top of a vaccine bottle, put a new needle on your syringe before you inject the next animal. Going through the rubber is harder on a needle than going through a cow’s skin. It will put a small curl on the tip of the needle. A dull needle causes more pain and damages more tissue. Use a separate needle for filling the syringe, then change to a new needle for vaccinating the cows.

If you had to inject through a dirty hide, or the needle bends or gets blunted by accidental contact with the chute, change needles immediately. It doesn’t take much to put a burr on the end of the needle. Some burrs are so tiny you can’t see them with the naked eye. One way to check a needle to see if it’s still sharp — without a blunted tip or burr — is to run the backside of the needle across the back of your hand. If you feel anything at all, it has a burr on the tip.

Bent tip

If a needle gets bent, don’t straighten it; a bent needle is weaker and more likely to break. If a needle breaks off in the animal and you can’t find it and remove it, you cannot legally sell that animal.

Intramuscular Cattle Injections

When using a trigger-type syringe for IM shots, thrust the needle into the muscle and pull the trigger. When using a smaller or disposable syringe, detach the needle and press your hand firmly against the skin to desensitize the site so the animal won’t jump when you insert the needle. Then thrust it in quickly and forcefully. A new, sharp needle goes in easier and causes less pain and damage than a dull one. If the animal jumps, wait until she settles down before attaching the syringe to the inserted needle to give the injection. If the needle starts to ooze blood, take it out and try a different spot. Never inject intramuscular products into a blood vessel. To reduce leakage, keep the needle inserted for at least two seconds after the injection before removing it from the muscle.

Trigger-type syringe

Another way to prevent leakage is to pull the skin taut across the injection site with one hand while you inject with the other, then release the skin after you remove the needle. The skin then moves over the hole and closes it. You can also rub the injection site briefly, to help distribute the product within the muscle and reduce pressure so it’s less apt to ooze back out.

Subcutaneous Cattle Injections

Most cattle injections today are given subcutaneously. Originally, SubQ injections were used if a particular product was irritating to muscle tissue or designed for slower rate of absorption. Today, due to concerns about carcass quality (avoiding IM shots, where possible) more injectables are approved for subcutaneous use. When you have a choice, according to label directions, inject under the skin rather than into muscle. IM shots are more likely to develop serious abscesses if a needle is dirty. Infection introduced by a SubQ shot is merely beneath the skin and an abscess more readily breaks open to drain.

For a SubQ injection, lift a fold of skin on neck or shoulder where skin is loosest, and slip the needle in between skin and muscle. If using a trigger-type syringe, aim it alongside the animal so the needle goes under the skin and not into muscle. For a small calf, it may be easiest to give a SubQ injection under the loose skin of the shoulder, and if there’s a local reaction it won’t make his neck sore (which may hinder nursing).

Giving injections SubQ rather than IM allows you to use a shorter needle (¾ inch if using a trigger type syringe, or up to one inch if using both hands to tent the skin and slip the needle underneath) so it’s less likely to bend or break. In the confined space of some chutes, insert the needle at an angle so you can use a one-handed technique with a syringe gun, rather than both hands to tent the skin. There’s less risk of getting your hand jammed between the animal and the chute or accidentally hitting yourself with the needle.

Restraint and Cleanliness

Make sure cattle are adequately restrained/secured before you give injections. There’s more chance of leakage/inadequate doses or bending a needle (creating more tissue damage) if the animal moves while you are injecting, putting an injection into the wrong location, or getting your hand caught between cattle in a runway. It’s best to restrain each one individually and do it carefully and accurately, rather than being in a hurry.
If cattle are dirty or the neck is covered with manure, wipe it off. In an alleyway, some animals stick their head under the one in front of them, and get covered with fresh manure. Sometimes you can just move to the other side of the neck and find a cleaner area. Occasionally, however, the animal is so dirty on both sides that even if you wipe off the manure you’d be injecting into a wet, dirty hide. In this situation, wash the area and then dry it as best you can (then change needles before the next cow). If that’s not possible you could inject into a cleaner area like under the loose hide over the ribs behind the elbow — in the girth area.


Use a syringe of proper size for the dose. Make sure a multi-dose syringe is giving an accurate dose each time. If it’s a big syringe and a small dose such as two-cc, is it actually injecting the full two ccs, or is it off a little? For smaller increments, you might want to use a smaller syringe that might be more accurate, or make sure the larger syringe is giving the correct amount.

Use a syringe of proper size.

If you are giving each animal more than one injection, make sure you put the same vaccine in the same syringe when you refill them. Mark the syringes or put color-coded tape on them so you never make a mistake.

Injection Sites

IM and SubQ injections should be given in the triangular mass of muscle on the side of the neck. The acceptable area starts about three fingers’ width behind the ear, extending down to a few inches in front of the shoulder, staying away from the top of the neck (which contains a thick ligament) and the bottom of the neck where windpipe, esophagus, and jugular vein are located. An alternative choice for SubQ injections, especially on small calves, is the area of relatively loose skin behind the shoulder blade.

When giving multiple injections to the same animal, make sure you have at least four inches of space between them, on the neck. That way there won’t be as much chance for the two products to run together under the skin. If one of them is a modified-live virus vaccine and the other one is a killed product, the ingredients in the killed product could inactivate the modified-live vaccine and it won’t be effective.

If a large IM dose must be given and there’s not enough area on the neck to absorb all the injections (since the product must be split into multiple sites no closer than four inches apart if the total dose is more than 10-cc, to have adequate tissue to absorb the medication), an alternative site is the back of the thigh.

Most shots should be put into the neck to avoid injecting into areas that will become important cuts of meat. Any scarred or damaged tissue can be more readily trimmed from the neck at slaughter. If there’s scar tissue (gristle) in the neck it’s not as critical, since the neck muscle is usually made into hamburger.

The rump is not acceptable for cattle injections, even though the thicker muscles are better for absorbing a large injection. Many types of injections occasionally create scars or an abscess, which would damage the best cuts of meat if put into the rump. It’s better to put IM injections into the neck, splitting a large dose into two or more sites if necessary. If an animal needs multiple injections or repeat treatment, vary the injection sites on subsequent cattle injections.

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