If the correct firearm and ammunition are used, a well-placed head shot (with the brain as the point of aim) will result in immediate unconsciousness. When there is adequate damage to the brain and the animal does not regain consciousness there will be no suffering.
In contrast, with chest shots (which cause damage to the heart and lungs), the time to unconsciousness can range from seconds up to a few minutes. When an animal is shot in the chest, the time to loss of consciousness and the time to death will depend on which tissues are damaged and, in particular, on the rate of blood loss and hence how long it takes for the brain to have insufficient oxygen. Loss of consciousness and death is likely to be quicker when animals have been shot in the heart. A phenomenon called ‘hydrostatic shock’, where a pressure wave from the bullet causes damage to internal organs, can contribute to ‘bringing down an animal’ quicker and causing a more rapid loss of consciousness in some instances when animals are shot in the chest. However, compared with head-shot animals, those that are chest shot have a higher risk of remaining conscious and suffering for a short period prior to death – though the extent of suffering will vary depending on which tissues are damaged and the rate of blood loss. During severe bleeding they are likely to feel a sense of breathlessness and potentially some anxiety and confusion before they lose consciousness.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for shooters to aim for the chest as it presents a larger target area compared to the head, thereby increasing the likelihood of shooting the animal, especially for less skilled shooters. To avoid suffering, shooters should be required to demonstrate competency in killing an animal instantly using a head shot. The other reason why chest shots may be preferred in recreational hunting is to preserve the head so that it can be mounted as a trophy.
The RSPCA is opposed to recreational or trophy hunting due to the inherent and inevitable pain and suffering caused to animals.