On the list of a horse owner’s worst nightmares, discovering your beloved horse has been shot nears the top. However, accidental shootings of humans and animals alike are not uncommon. In 2020 the Centers for Disease Control reported that unintentional gunshots killed 535 people in the United States alone. While every shooting incident is traumatic, not all gunshot wounds are created equal. Precisely where, when, and how the bullet enters the victim’s body can make the difference between life and death.
At the 2022 Veterinary Meeting and Expo (VMX), held in Orlando, Florida, Sandy Taylor, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM (LA), an associate professor of large animal internal medicine in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in West Lafayette, Indiana, shared her own experiences caring for a horse that had been shot.
Last year, Taylor and her colleagues admitted a 15-year-old Quarter Horse gelding with a penetrating wound to his proximal left hind limb. His owners explained that the neighbors had accidentally shot the animal with a gun. They had found several stray bullets in the barn, and police later concluded the offending bullet had hit the interior wall before ricocheting and penetrating the horse’s rump, reducing the force of the impact and, thus, possibly saving his life.
“The horse was a little lame, but otherwise appeared quite normal,” Taylor said of the gelding when he presented to the hospital. Playing in the horse’s favor was the location in which the bullet had wedged itself. Radiographs revealed the intruding object had landed in a fleshy part of the rump, steering clear of the gelding’s femur and of both his coxofemoral (hip) and femorotibial (stifle) joints. Had the bullet encountered a bone or a synovial structure such as a joint or tendon sheath, the horse might have faced a grave prognosis. Fractures, osteomyelitis (bone infection or inflammation), septic joints/tendon sheaths, arthritis, and osteoarthritis would all have been possible complications.
An ultrasonographic exam confirmed the veterinarian’s speculation that only soft tissue had been hit, and Taylor and her team decided to attempt an ultrasound-guided removal of the bullet through the incision it had created. They cleaned and numbed the wound and tried to grasp the bullet. These manipulations, however, caused the bullet to shift and move a few inches within the muscle.
“We then had to create a second incision to extract the bullet in its new location,” Taylor explained. “Since the offender had entered the leg through nonsterile skin, we then looped a rubber drain through both incisions and tied it to allow the wound to remain open and drain, much like we would do with an abscess.”
Free of the bullet, the horse was sent home with a precautionary course of the broad-spectrum antibiotic sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim to help prevent a potential bacterial infection. “Not all gunshot wounds have successful outcomes,” Taylor said, adding that this particular horse was lucky to recover uneventfully from his misadventure.