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Gunshot Injury in Cats

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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In our increasingly violent society, the ready availability of firearms not only increases the risk of injury to people but also to our pets. Gunshot injury is particularly common in poor urban areas and rural areas. The damage associated with gunshot injury depends on the area of the body in which the projectile enters.

X-rays are recommended for all gunshot injuries. Once the bullet or path of the bullet is determined, based on entrance wound/exit wounds, metallic objects, fragments and bullets, appropriate treatment can be administered.

Gunshot can affect multiple body systems. The projectile can pass through the upper arm, pass into the chest and exit the lower abdomen. This makes it difficult to categorize gunshot wounds. Damage varies depending on where the bullet enters, the distance between the gun and the body and the caliber of bullet or type of projectile.

Gunshot to the Chest

Gunshot injury to the chest has the potential to be fatal. In order to penetrate the chest, the projectile must penetrate the muscles of the ribs or neck or the diaphragm (the muscle that divides the chest and abdomen). After entering the chest, the projectile can then pierce the heart, major blood vessels, trachea or lungs. If the heart or a major blood vessel is lacerated, death is often instantaneous or occurs very quickly after the injury. There is little that can be done if the heart or major vessel is injured. If the animal survives the transport to the veterinary hospital, emergency surgery and blood transfusion can be attempted but is often unsuccessful.

If the trachea is injured, surgery is required since the animal usually has difficulty breathing and may have air leaking for the trachea into the chest cavity. If the bullet is found in the chest and the animal is not in shock and has no breathing problems, the only treatment necessary is to clean the wound on the skin. It is not worth the risk of anesthetizing and opening the chest cavity surgically simply to retrieve a bullet or pellet. Surgery on the chest should only be performed if necessary.

Gunshot to the Leg

Gunshot to the leg can cause severe devastating injuries or may only cause minor damage. Large caliber or buckshot can fracture bones, destroy muscle and cause severe damage to the nerves, joints and vessels. Treatment varies depending on injury. Severely injured legs may require amputation. Surgery, splints and casts may be necessary in some cases. Some animals may have residual joint pain, arthritis or scarring that would affect the animal's ability to walk or run.

Gunshot to the Abdomen

If a pellet or bullet penetrates the abdomen, surgery is strongly recommended. Any projectile that penetrates the abdomen has the potential to cause severe damage. The liver, pancreas, spleen, kidney, intestine, bladder, stomach and other organs have the potential to be damaged. Finding the extent of the injury is very difficult without surgically opening the abdomen and visualizing all the organs.

Severe liver damage may require removal of part of the liver. Bladder damage requires surgical repair of the tear to prevent urine leakage. Kidney damage often results in the surgical removal of the injured kidney. Stomach and intestinal damage requires surgical repair and may even require removal of part of the intestine.

Home Care

After care and treatment of gunshot injury, there is a continual threat of infection and breakdown of the surgery site for about a week. After a week the threat of serious complication is quite low.

There is no home care for gunshot injury. If you suspect your pet has been shot, immediate examination is recommended.

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