Penetrating Trauma and Gunshot Wounds

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

What is penetrating trauma?

Penetrating trauma typically refers to a deep wound that enters a body cavity such as the abdomen or chest. Most injuries are caused by traumas such as gunshot or arrow wounds, animal fights, impalement on sticks or metal, and automobile accidents. Falls from high places may also result in serious penetrating injuries. Whenever a pet has an injury that enters a body cavity, life-threatening internal damage and infection may result.

How can my veterinarian tell if my pet has a penetrating injury?

In most cases, the pet’s owner will have witnessed the injury. In others, what initially appears to be a small external wound may be the only evidence that a severe penetrating trauma has occurred. Your veterinarian may take X-rays or perform an ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan to determine the extent of your pet's injuries. Your pet may need to be sedated for these procedures. Blood and urine tests and a complete physical examination are also standard procedures for pets with penetrating wounds or gunshot injuries.

How is a pet with penetrating trauma treated?

A wounded pet needs to first be stabilized by being put on intravenous (IV) fluids and possibly a blood transfusion. Once your veterinarian has determined the approximate extent of the injuries, your pet will likely need to be sedated and put under general anesthesia so that the wounds can be further examined, disinfected, and repaired.

Many cases of penetrating trauma appear small and uncomplicated until the wound is opened and examined more closely. This is especially the case with gunshot wounds. Even small projectiles, such as shotgun pellets, can carry tremendous force and energy. This energy is absorbed and dispersed by the tissues it contacts. If a bullet or pellet impacts any vital organs, such as the heart, intestines, kidneys, liver, lungs, or spleen, life-threatening complications may result.

"...small projectiles, such as shotgun pellets, can carry tremendous force and energy."

Many penetrating and gunshot wounds carry the risk of severe infection. In addition, debris from wood, plants, fur, or metal may be carried internally during the trauma, causing a foreign-body reaction and future complications. Most cases of internal injuries will require antibiotic treatment.

Gunshot wounds in which the bullet or pellet remains inside the pet will often require surgery to remove the projectile. Surgical removal is highly dependent on location, organs and tissues affected, presence of infection or contamination, and size of the projectile. If bones are injured, fracture repair may be needed or, in severe cases, amputation. Your veterinarian will determine if your pet needs surgery.

What can I do to help my pet before I get to the veterinary hospital?

Keep your pet as quiet and still as possible. Movement may cause additional internal injuries, increased bleeding, or shock.

Wrap your pet in a warm blanket or towel. Not only can this help to keep your pet still, but it can also help prevent the pet's body temperature from dropping.

If a foreign body, such as a stick or arrow, is present, stabilize the object and attempt to prevent it from moving. Depending on the object, creating a ’donut’ with clean bandaging material and placing it over the object, then taping it down securely to stabilize the object is helpful. Additional damage and injuries will result if the object moves inside the pet.

If the foreign object is long, attempt to gently cut it off, leaving only three to six inches protruding from the body. This will aid in immobilizing the object and help prevent additional injuries.

"Never try to pull a foreign body out. The object may be impaled on a vital organ or blood vessel, and removal may worsen your pet's condition."

Never try to pull a foreign body out. The object may be impaled on a vital organ or blood vessel, and removal may worsen your pet's condition.

If the injury is to the chest, listen closely for sounds of air sucking near the wound. If the wound or gunshot has entered the chest, cover the injured area with plastic wrap as completely as possible to prevent air sucking. Before placing the plastic wrap over the site, apply petroleum jelly or triple antibiotic to help better seal the wound, if possible.

Even if the wound appears minor, seek medical assistance immediately. Pets can appear completely normal right after severe penetrating trauma or gunshot wounds, only to collapse in shock 30 to 90 minutes later.

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