Some fictional concepts have become so ubiquitous that it simply doesn't occur to us to question them. Such is the case with tranquilizer guns. The image of a nice little tufted dart causing someone to slump to the ground, dead to the world, within seconds of noticing an annoying sting is burned into our brains.
I have to admit that I fell for this one. When I got Sirocco, the purchase of a dart gun was high on my list since I'm the "be prepared for anything" type. Luckily reality set in before I dropped a few hundred dollars on one. Here are some key differences between fact and fiction.
It's not a cute little dart with tufts on the end. It's a big syringe filled with drugs. When it hits the animal an explosive charge detonates to inject the drugs.
We're not talking about a harmless little sting here. Darts can and do cause serious injuries such as shattered bones. I recently saw a bobcat whose bone had been shattered by a dart, which nearly resulted in the amputation of his leg. Incidentally, the drugs this cat was darted with completely failed to knock him out. The use of dart projector is of course much less likely to cause injuries to large felines such as lions and tigers; this article is more concerned with small cat species like servals and bobcats.
The Hollywood image of an animal getting darted, taking a couple of steps, then toppling over unconscious is pure fiction. Currently available “chemical immobilization” drugs take 15-20 minutes to take effect, and even then induce sedation rather than unconsciousness. Sometimes they don’t even work at all. The only fast acting drugs available must be administered intravenously (IV).
With these facts in mind, think about what will actually happen if your cat gets loose and you dart him. It will hurt like hell and scare the living daylights out of him, causing him to take off at a dead run. How much ground do you think a frightened cat can cover in 15 or 20 minutes? A lot; in fact, it’s unlikely that you would ever find him. Then you’ll have an injured, heavily sedated cat lying alone, vulnerable to predators and drug complications.
If you have caged cats that cannot be handled, blow guns and “jab sticks” are safer close-range tools to administer medication or sedatives.
Blow guns are reccomended by many experienced small feline owners as a safer alternative. They allow the user to control how much force is used, and may be useful in escape situations where the animal has been located, but will not allow the owner to walk up and grab it. They may also be useful in locations where posession of firearms laws prohibit the ownership or use of a dart projector. I will probably be acquiring a blow gun in the future, and I will report back after I have some useful feedback.
Dart projectors are primarily useful in game parks and zoos where large, wild, contained animals must be sedated for veterinary care, or in field research where an animal can be darted and tracked by air or vehicle until it goes down. Dart projectors also shoot differently from traditional firearms, so if you find yourself in a position to need one be prepared to buy a target practice kit, practice regularly, and if at all possible attend a training course on their use. The immobilization drugs must be obtained from your veterinarian.
Now for the other way of looking at things; an arguement can reasonably be made that the use of a dart projector will prevent the cat's death due to a trigger-happy law-enforcement officer, farmer, or nervous citizen. Exposure, vehicles, and lack of food due to not knowing how to hunt can also be fatal to an exotic cat. So the decision might be justified to use a projector and risk an injured but alive feline rather than a dead one.
Here are some links to places where you can buy a blowgun: