Technique matters when administering oral products

Beef 911: There are several things to be aware of when using balling guns and oral technique

Care should be taken when administering products with a balling gun or other oral administration techniques.

The use of balling guns or administration of other oral products is increasing in the cattle business, including for NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

In the old days, a few antibiotics such as long-acting sulfa drugs were given as oral tablets or there were big aspirin pills. These are both actually still available today but seldom used.

There have been several reported instances of perforation of the pharynx or trauma to the area. There are also reports of aspiration of other products from too vigorous drenching. Even though rare, these incidents cause catastrophic medical cases (often resulting in death of the animal).

This article will review proper administration of these products, what they are currently being used for, and the hardware (balling guns or hook applicators) used to administer them.

We are working around the head of the cattle more frequently — with ear tags, RFID tags, implants, intranasal vaccines, administering large pills and oral drenches. For safety, good head restraint is necessary and you always need to be cognizant of the fact the head can swing and uppercut you.

It is very critical to be very respectful of bulls in the chute. Severe injuries to the head and neck can happen if your processors don’t know where to be as bulls or cows can suddenly lunge upwards.

Even though administering a bolus or product seems like a straightforward procedure, there is a right and wrong way to do things.

These balling guns may be very large (such as the ones to put in Rumensin CRC boluses and the ones for calcium boluses). If you are concerned about the size of these boluses, it is good to recognize that they were formulated for adult livestock. You can lubricate them up just a bit with mineral oil, which will facilitate swallowing. (The calcium bolus produced by Solvet has been formulated with fat, which acts as its own lubricant.)

It is important when using the balling gun to get to the back of the throat (up and over the thick part of the tongue). This facilitates the swallowing reflex. This is critical for the large boluses as well and, if administering rumen magnets, for the prevention of hardware disease.

One must wait a few seconds to make sure the product/magnet has been swallowed. Usually cattle will lick their nose when the bolus has been swallowed and if one sees apprehension in their face and side-to-side movements of their jaw, they are likely spitting it out. There is a knack to doing this properly.

There have been several instances of injuries or of boluses being jammed up or down the esophagus, so technique is critical. One can’t be too forceful with the balling gun or injuries will occur.

Also take heed and examine the balling gun. If a plastic one has become rough and chewed up over time, discard it. That applies to the metal ones as well. Some producers dip it in disinfectant, such as Virkon, between uses for biosecurity reasons and the water in the Virkon keeps them lubricated as well.

Hooked applicators are designed to administer product against the inside of the mouth against the cheek. If cattle or bison, for instance, are open-mouth breathing from stress, allow them a few seconds to chew on the applicator. If you don’t and squirt product in, there is a possibility of aspiration and that can have negative health consequences. I have seen that happen and the products can be very irritating in the lungs causing a tracheitis.

More oral products will be developed over the years, whether it be directly mixed into the feed or administered individually. Take time to develop the right technique to deliver the product and be patient.

A good head chute and neck restraint makes it easier, but it still takes patience and technique. Remember there can be some negative health consequences if done improperly, so make sure you need to give the product in the first place.

As with all things we do in cattle production, technique is critical so ask for help from someone who has developed a good technique.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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