Like most cats, Sissi is a creature of habit: she comes and goes at around the same time each day. Last week, Mark let her outside after her supper: she always goes out for an evening wander. She miaows at the back door when she wants to be let back in. Unusually, she hadn’t come back by the time Mark went to bed, so he kept half an ear out for her.
At 1am, he was woken by the sound of her miaowing, and when he opened the door, she limped in, not putting any weight on her left foreleg. Mark could see a small wound on her shoulder, and he presumed she’d been in a fight with another animal of some kind. He gave her some food, which she ate hungrily, and he made sure she was settled comfortably in her bed for the night.
In the morning, she was still holding up her left leg, so he brought her to see me. When I examined her, it was obvious that the focus of pain was the top of her leg, and there were two small wounds, one at the front, and one at the back. Each wound measured just a few millimetres, which fitted with the possibility of her being bitten by another cat. Her leg was unusually swollen for a bite wound, however, and when I moved her leg, I could feel “crepitus”, which is the grating sensation caused when two ends of a broken bone rub against each other. A bite would never be powerful enough to break a bone so I knew that there was something odd going on. I decided to sedate Sissi and take x-ray pictures to find out more.
The x-rays showed that she had more than a simple broken bone: the top of her humerus (her upper arm bone) was in smithereens. It had shattered into tiny splinters, as if it had exploded. The x-ray also revealed the cause of the injury: fragments of a lead bullet were interspersed with the pieces of broken bone. Sissi had been shot.
I then examined the two wounds more carefully, clipping away the fur around them. I could now see that they were almost spherical, with cleaner, more defined edges than bite marks. I now knew that I was looking at the entry and exit holes of a bullet from a high velocity gun.
Sissi’s humerus had been so badly shattered that it was not possible to reconstruct it using the usual orthopaedic plates and screws. There were two options: amputating the painful leg, or confining her to cage rest for six weeks, in the hope that the bone fragments would naturally start to knit together. Mark decided to try the latter approach: in the future, it will always be possible to amputate her leg if she is not doing well.
We discussed the difficult issue of who might have shot this innocent cat. Mark lives in a village in the countryside, and there are fields within a few hundred yards. While it was possible that a disgruntled cat-hating neighbour could have shot her, this seemed unlikely. Anyone with a high powered rifle needs to have a gun license, and when Mark reported to the police that his cat had been shot, a neighbour would be found out at once from their address.
The more likely scenario is that legitimate hunters had been out for the evening, “lamping” foxes. This involves two people: one shining a bright light into the undergrowth, and the other aiming the gun. If a fox is spotted, they are momentarily dazzled by the bright light, and they freeze. The man with the gun can see the fox’s eyes in the torch light, and he pulls the trigger, aiming just below the eyes, hoping for a chest shot so that the fox dies instantly. On this occasion, the hunters must have caught Sissi in the beam of light. You would hope that they might have mistaken her for a fox, but it’s more likely that they could see she was a cat, but they decided to shoot her anyway. The bullet missed its target, hitting her around 3cm to the right of the “kill” zone, straight into the top of her leg. She was lucky to survive.
Mark reported the incident to the local police, but no action is likely to be taken. In the countryside, animals are sometimes shot at night, and hunting is seen as a legitimate traditional activity, even though it’s outrageously wrong that a pet cat was the target.