Metal projectiles show up clear as day on radiographs. Most of the time, the projectile appears to be a round bb or shotgun pellet. Occasionally, as occurred the other day, I find hourglass-shaped pellets from air guns. Actual bullets are not commonly found on radiographs because they cause too much damage, in most cases, for the pet to survive until X-rays are taken.
In most cases, including my most recent one, the projectiles are incidental findings. That means they are embedded in the patient without causing any symptoms or problems. Most of the time I find only a single projectile in any patient. However, sometimes there are more; I found three pellets in my patient last time.
BBs and air gun pellets usually aren’t fatal to cats and dogs. In my recent patient all three pellets were lodged superficially under the skin. They could be felt as small bumps under the skin once I knew where to look. I’d estimate, very roughly, that one in every 50 patients whose radiographs I evaluate have embedded projectiles as incidental findings.
However, occasionally even a BB can cause big problems. I have evaluated cats that have been shot in the chest, leading to respiratory distress and death. I have evaluated dogs that have been shot in the eye, leading to removal of the eye.
If you don’t want neighborhood sociopaths and future serial killers taking pot shots at your pets, your best bet is to keep your cat inside, and to supervise your dog when he’s outdoors. An indoor cat can’t be shot unless your neighborhood nut case also wants to shoot out your windows. And the sort of person who takes cheap shots at dogs is a lot less likely to fire away if an owner is present to beat him to a pulp or report him to the police. A free roaming dog or cat, on the other hand, makes an easy and low risk victim.