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Emergency Medicine & First Aid

Porcupine Encounters: How to Safeguard Your Dog

Learn how to prevent porcupine encounters and what to do if your dog gets quilled by a porcupine.

By Krista Halling DVM CCRP DACVS

When it comes to exploring the great outdoors, there’s one prickly problem that every dog owner should be aware of: porcupines. Their quills can spell trouble for nosy dogs. Let’s talk about how to keep our dogs safe and what to do if they do encounter one of these spiky critters.

We spoke with wildlife veterinarian Dr Sherri Cox of the National Wildlife Centre and Dr Karol Mathews, Professor Emerita in Veterinary Emergency Medicine and Critical Care of the Ontario Veterinary College, on keeping dogs safe in porcupine country and what to do if your dog gets quilled. Here are the take-aways:

Prevention is key

  • Porcupines are found in the Americas, Africa, parts of Europe and Asia. When dogpacking, be aware of whether any species live in your planned area.
  • Porcupines are shy by nature and will not actively attack a dog; rather they will use their quills as defence when threatened. Dogs on the other hand are curious by nature, and will likely try to investigate a porcupine. This is typically how they get quilled.
  • Keep you dog on a leash, especially at dawn and dusk, which is when porcupines are most active.
  • Train your dog to “Leave it!” And “Come!” on command.

Why are porcupine quills so harmful?

  • Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot throw their quills. Rather, they rapidly erect them, which causes the quills to make contact with the skin and/or mouth of a dog that comes too close. Since the quills release easily from the porcupine, they remain in the dog.
  • Porcupine quills are barbed, which prevents them from falling out of a predator’s skin.
  • A dog’s mouth and muzzle are the most common sites to be ‘quilled’.
  • The barbs on a porcupine’s quills also allow the quills to move deeper into the tissues over time, as the dog moves. This is known in medical terms as “migration” and can result in the quills ending up in a dog’s lungs, near their vertebrae, in their abdomen, in their joints, in blood vessels and in other locations at a distance from where they originated.
Porcupine quills are easily released by a porcupine yet have tiny barbs which hold them in a predator’s skin.

What to do if your dog gets quilled

  • Leave the porcupine alone (it most likely has run off); or contact a wildlife center if it appears to be injured.
  • Seek veterinary attention for your dog as soon as possible. Porcupine quills should be removed carefully and promptly. As tempting as is may be to try to remove them yourself, for your own safety and that of your dog we recommend having a veterinarian do it if possible, since in an awake dog the removal would hurt and you are more likely to break the quills or leave some behind.
  • Do not cut the quills since the remaining quill segments are likely to disappear beneath the skin and migrate.

Removing porcupine quills

  • Veterinary attention is advised so that the quills can hopefully all be identified and safely removed. Since quill removal is painful for your dog and often requires careful examination of their mouth, your dog will almost always need to be sedated.
  • When removing a porcupine quill (we recommend this be performed by a veterinarian), the the skin adjacent to the quill should be pressed down using a finger on either side of the quill to stabilize the skin. Using pliers, the quill is then pulled out straight and not twisted, to avoid it breaking off in the skin.
  • If left to migrate, porcupine quills can take weeks to months to show up somewhere else in a dog’s body.
Dog sedated for removal of porcupine quills from muzzle. Photo courtesy: Dr Nickey Brown
Another dog under anaesthesia to remove quills from face and mouth. Photo courtesy: Dr Karol Mathews

Tips following quill removal

  • Monitor your dog for any signs of residual or migrating quills (this may include swelling, lameness, fluid discharge from the skin, coughing). Should this happen your dog will let you know by acting abnormally based on where the porcupine quill migrated to and causing injury in that part of the body. You must take them to a veterinarian immediately and report the previous porcupine interaction.
  • Despite thorough examination, one can never guarantee that no quills were left behind or are already hiding under your dog’s skin.
  • Repeat offenders: many dogs get quilled by porcupines more than once. Note that they may not learn to avoid a porcupine!
  • Follow preventive measures by staying aware of whether porcupines live in the area, keep your dog on a leash, and keep up their obedience training.

By following the above guidelines, we can enjoy our outdoor adventures with peace of mind, knowing that we’re keeping our furry companions and porcupines safe from each other. Here’s to many more happy trails with our beloved pups by our side and porcupines in the trees above.

About the author

Krista Halling is a veterinarian board-certified with the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and co-founder of Dogpacking.com.

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