An article by Toronto Star columnist Linda Diebel prompted me to write about a topic I’ve wanted to address for a while –  needlestick injuries. In the column, Ms. Diebel discusses her cat with idiopathic cystitis (a bladder disorder) and the need to treat it at home periodically with subcutaneous fluids (injections of fluid under the skin) and injectable medications. These are relatively easy procedures that most pet owners can manage with a little training, and it can be instrumental to improving the quality and length of life of some animals. However, safe and appropriate needle handling and needlestick injuries are rarely discussed.

Needle handling, needlestick injuries and avoiding contact with blood are (generally) very poorly managed by the veterinary profession. Needlestick injuries are incredibly common in the veterinary field, yet there is often little effort taken to reduce the risk of such injuries occuring. In contrast, there is a great deal of effort expended to prevent needlesticks in human medicine, largely because of concerns about transmission of viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B.  Fortunately, (currently) there are no common pathogens in pets that are transmitted by contact with blood and that are a significant concern in people. However, new diseases are emerging all the time, and there’s no way to guarantee that the next big infectious disease in dogs or cats won’t  be a bloodborne virus that can be transmitted to people by blood or dirty needles. It’s not very likely, but you don’t want to be the first person to get it if it does happen!

When it comes to injecting pets at home with fluids or drugs (e.g. insulin for diabetic animals) , some very basic precautions can greatly reduce the risk of injuries. The most important are:

  • Know how to handle needles. You should be properly instructed on how to handle needles and treat your pet by your veterinarian.
  • Make sure your pet is well restrained. If the animal is squirming around, you’re more likely to inject yourself by accident.
  • Never recap a needle. This is a very common cause of injury!  When trying to recap, it’s easy to miss the cap and stick yourself.  Instead of recapping the needle, after use dispose of it immediately in an approved sharps container. These containers are puncture-proof and are designed to help prevent anyone from getting the needles back out (either by accident or intentionally).  You can get a sharps container from your veterinarian or a medical supply store. Once the container is 3/4 full, put the cap on it (once on the cap cannot be removed) and take it to your veterinarian for disposal. There may be a small fee for disposal, but it shouldn’t be too expensive.
  • Never leave an uncapped needle lying around anywhere for any period of time.
  • Never put a needle in your pocket.  Pretty obvious why.
  • Never put needles in your regular garbage.  People collecting and handling your garbage could get stuck by the needles.

Even though needlestick injuries associated with animals are incredibly common, fortunately they don’t usually cause problems (although they still hurt, of course!). However, various types of infectious, allergic and other reactions can occur, and serious consequences, while rare, can develop. More information on needlestick injuries in veterinary medicine can be found in a commentary published recently in the Canadian Veterinary Journal.