Written by Lori Dinsmore, LVT, VTS (SAIM)
A walk in the woods with your dog is a great escape all year-round, through snowy trails or summery heat. As we head outside and into the woods, it is important to remember that although most wild animals become inactive in winter, they don’t always go away with the winter frost. Skunks are one such animal, but significantly more disconcerting than the skunk, is the porcupine. Any encounter with your dog, especially an off-leash encounter, has the unfortunate potential to end with quills protruding from his or her body, and an emergency trip to the veterinary hospital.
Porcupines are reclusive animals; they come out in the warmer weather months and remain relatively active all year-round, mostly active at dusk and dawn. While the myth that porcupines shoot their quills when threatened has been debunked, when frightened their quills stand up straight and detach easily when touched. Quills remain a danger to curious investigators or hungry predators even after the porcupine has died. Quills will become lodged into any surface they come in contact with, and when eaten will cause even more damage as they migrate through the esophagus and stomach walls, requiring surgery for removal.
The tips of porcupine quills are composed of minuscule backwards-facing scales that open up to form barbs. The quill slides easily into the skin because the barbs are smooth and flat. When you attempt to pull them out, the backwards-facing barbs open up and act like hooks, embedding themselves into tissue and impaling the skin.
Popular mechanics has a really good close up image of porcupine quills: Click here to see.
Removal of porcupine quills should be carried out by your family veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian if the incident takes place after hours. Removal is painful and infection is possible, further treatments may need to be considered too if quills are broken or missed.
Your veterinarian will administer pain medication to manage the discomfort caused by quill removal and may or may not recommend sedation based on the quill load and the patient’s demeanor. All pets are scared because they don’t understand what has happened, they are painful and are too nervous to sit still during what can sometimes be hours of removal time.
It goes without saying, but the quills should be removed as soon as possible. Once quills are lodged into the skin, they begin to soften, increasing the likelihood of broken, embedded quills that could get missed; likewise the difficulty of removing the quills intact increases the longer they are embedded. When partial or full quills remain lodged in the skin, there is a potential for migration and additional complications. Complications can include finding a quill that has traveled and is now poking out of the skin in a different area, infections, and quill migration into the chest or abdomen leading to a collapsed lung or organ damage. Please note, quills do not transmit rabies; we would only be concerned about rabies in a patient with bite-wounds, or where the dog bit the porcupine.
Once removal is complete, you will need to monitor your dog for the next few weeks to months, depending on the severity of
the quilling, for any signs of potential complications. During this time, do not hesitate to call your family’s veterinarian with questions or concerns as it is always better to be on the safe side.
So, as you head out for a long walk in the woods at any time of year, please keep in mind all of the other animals, not just the porcupines, you may run into during your trip. A dog’s predatory instincts and canine curiosity (and snoopy nose) will quickly override any memory they have of any previous quilling and veterinary visit. Stay safe, keep your eyes open for any signs of danger and always have contact information for an emergency veterinary hospital and your own veterinary hospital close to hand.