Porcupines are the 3rd largest rodent in America, second only to the beaver. Porcupines can be active during the day or night. They can be found lumbering on the ground and perched high in trees – searching for leafy forage. They are slow moving herbivores with few natural predators. Cougars and fisher weasels are the only ones are known to regularly prey on porcupines. If a threat gets too close a porcupine may spin around and swing its tail at a predator. If this doesn’t do the trick, they may start to lunge backwards at the aggressor.
North American porcupines have three types of hair on their bodies. Underfur, which is short and soft. Guards hairs that give porcupines their cute fluffy appearance. Then, the infamous quills – which can be over 12 inches long. Painful going in, but the quills can be even more painful when coming out. This is due to the barbs on the tips of the quills. These tiny barbs help the quills stay fixed in flesh and drive them deeper with every movement. These barbs also render the quills four times harder to pull out once embedded.
Sticky situation. The tiny barbs (top) coating the tips of the quills from North American porcupines (bottom) make it more difficult to extract a quill from flesh, but they also help the quill penetrate the fleshAs the weather warms up and more of our pets are out and about, encounters with these prickly creatures tend to increase. If your dog or other pet has been a victim of a porcupine you should consider having a veterinarian remove the quills.
Only remove the quills if there are less than 10 and are not embedded in the mouth, throat or eyes. Be mindful that the quills can be brittle and break off still within the flesh. Due to the discomfort caused by the barbs during removal, even the sweetest dog can bite. Do not attempt to muzzle your dog – there may be quills within the mouth or airway. Another factor to consider is, quill removal may be traumatizing for some pets. If you attempt to remove quills on your own only to find Fido is not having any part of this- they can be more anxious when they come to the vet.
When you’ve discovered your pet has had an encounter with a porcupine bring them to the vet immediately. Frequently quills can penetrate through the eyelids and into the eye. If your pet attempted to bite the porcupine, quills can also be found in the gums, tongue and down the throat – which can obstruct breathing. The paws will likely have quills in them as your pet attempted to remove the quills in their face.
When they arrive at our hospital we will sedate or possibly anesthetize them and remove the quills. Sedation is required to make sure your pet is not experiencing pain during the procedure. This also allows us to completely check over the entire body and within the mouth. Despite all efforts, there is still a small chance a quill tip could be embedded below the surface of the skin. Over the next few weeks continue to monitor your pet far any signs of pain, areas of redness or swelling. A small portion of a quill may need to be removed and your pet possibly require antibiotics.
Do not assume that your pet has “learned their lesson” after a porcupine encounter. Many dogs will be treated for porcupine quills more than one time. Porcupines are solitary creatures that live in rocky dens or in trees. If an encounter occurred at your home – check under decks, crawl spaces or downed logs, these may be areas for a den. Keep your pet on a leash if not under voice command if you are in known porcupine territories. Minimizing encounters is the best way to protect your pet from the pain of quill removal. Porcupines are not aggressive and would much rather saunter up a tree to eat some leaves, not have a standoff with your dog.