Our friend Georgia had an unfortunate wildlife encounter yesterday. We sedated her and got to work. In addition to the quills on her face, she had quite a mouthful. It took three technicians about 90 minutes to pull hundreds of quills.
Georgia is not alone – every year in the warmer months we see at least a dozen dogs who have caught the wrong end of the porcupine – Georgia was our seventh since April! This got us thinking about porcupines and we wanted to share some information, misconceptions and tips to help keep your dog safe.
Porcupines are members of the rodent family and there are several different kinds of porcupine in different regions around the world. The North American Porcupine – Erethizon dorsatum – is a slow-moving herbivore that roams the forests of New England.
Porcupines are generally solitary outside of mating season, which is in late summer/early fall. They make their dens in caves and hollow logs and are excellent climbers, spending a lot of time in the treetops. They’re generally most active in the early morning, evening and throughout the night. Surprisingly, they’re also very good swimmers.
Porcupines like to mind their own business and will generally avoid conflict. However, if a predator pushes the issue the porcupine has an excellent defense system. They sport up to 30,000 sharp, barbed quills on their backs and tails. When danger approaches, they turn their back and present their quills, protecting their vulnerable heads and bellies. If the predator gets close enough, the porcupine can lash out with his quill-covered tail, giving the intruder a face full of quills.
Porcupine quills are basically modified hairs. They’re hollow and very sharp. The North American porcupine also has 700-800 microscopic barbs on the ends of the quills that allow the quill to penetrate easily but provide resistance when we try to pull the quills out. Those barbs are what make quill removal so challenging – and painful – to our four-legged friends.
Common Porcupine Myths:
- “Porcupines can shoot their quills!”
- Nope. Porcupines do not have the ability to shoot their quills. This myth may have come about because a porcupine does have the ability to whack a predator with its heavily quilled tail, and that can happen so quickly it may have led to the perception that the quills were shot out.
- “Porcupine quills are poisonous!”
- Nope. There is no poison on the quills, although they often have bacteria on them that can cause infection when they puncture the skin.
- “Cutting the quills before you try to pull them will make them deflate so they come out easier!”
- Definitely not a good idea. The resistance comes from the barbs on the ends of the quills, not from air pressure within the quill. If they slip below the surface of the skin where they can’t be seen and removed, porcupine quills become very dangerous.
- “My dog got quilled – I’m sure he learned his lesson!”
- Well, hopefully not a myth. But there’s no guarantee that a dog who gets quilled will “learn” from the experience and avoid porcupines in the future. We have several “repeat offenders” who get quilled once or twice every year.
- “My dog doesn’t go off leash, so I don’t have to worry about porcupines”
- Believe it or not, we’ve seen dogs that were quilled while they were walking on leash with their owners. They suddenly dove into the bushes and came out with a face full of quills, their surprised owner standing right there holding the other end of the leash.
What to do if your dog gets quilled:
You should always seek veterinary care immediately if your dog gets quilled. There are many reasons for this:
- As time passes, the dog is likely to try to get rid of the quills by rolling, pawing at them or trying to rub them off. Unfortunately, this only drives them further into the tissue and breaks off the ends, making them even more difficult to remove
- Quill removal is extremely painful. Your veterinarian can sedate or anesthetize your dog for the procedure
- Even the nicest dogs may bite with the pain, trauma and shock of being quilled/having the quills pulled while awake, and you don’t want to damage the trusting relationship you have with your dog
- There are probably quills that you can’t see/get, including inside of your dog’s mouth and throat
- Some quills may have to be surgically removed if they’ve slipped completely under the skin
- Your vet can prescribe antibiotics to help prevent abscesses and infection that the bacteria on the quills can cause, and medication to help with pain and inflammation.
- Porcupine quills are surprisingly brittle when you’re trying to pull them and broken off pieces can cause infections and migrate under the skin
A note about migrating quills:
In some cases, it can be nearly impossible to remove all the quills and quill fragments, even with proper veterinary care. It is common for quills to move, or “migrate”, out toward the surface of the skin days or even weeks after the incident. These quills should be removed completely as soon as they become apparent. It is possible for porcupine quills or fragments to migrate deeper into the body instead of outward. This can cause pockets of infection and, in very rare cases, may be life-threatening as the quills can actually work their way deep enough to puncture vital organs. While it’s not a common, it’s something to keep in mind and another reason to have your vet examine and treat your dog if they are quilled.
Prevention is the best medicine
Although there’s no guaranteed way to prevent your dog from having a run-in with a porcupine, there are steps you can take to lessen the risk. Make sure your dog is indoors overnight when porcupines are most active, and keep him on a leash when you’re out walking in wooded areas. Keep your dog’s rabies vaccine up to date, and if your dog does get quilled, bring him to a veterinarian right away.