Lucerne Veterinary Hospital Blog

Porcupine Quills: Myths and Facts

porcupine quills

You have just changed into your pajamas, and yawning, you open the door to let Ruby in after she has finished her eliminations for the night. You are horrified to discover, however, that your once sleek pointer is now sporting a new beard made of black and white spines. What should you do next?

As long as porcupines and dogs have been roaming this continent together, there have been many old wive’s tales surrounding quills. Test your quill knowledge and determine which of the following are true, and which are myths.

You should cut the ends off of quills to deflate them and make them easier to remove.

Myth! Quills are not like balloons. They are more like the shaft of a feather. A quill will not shrink in diameter if you cut it; rather, you will lose leverage and make it more difficult to grab and extract. Shortening the quill will also make it more likely that the quill will become embedded entirely below the surface of the skin and difficult to retrieve.

Dogs learn to avoid porcupines after being quilled.

Myth, in the vast majority of cases. Most dogs will continually seek rematches after porcupine encounters that have ended poorly for them (which are all of them). Keeping your dog on leash is the best way to avoid porcupine encounters. This is especially important during times of highest porcupine activity, during dusk and dawn. If your dog is a repeat offender, consider fencing in your yard.

Quills are equipped with tiny barbs that cause them to migrate into the body.

True! These one-way barbs cause quills to continue to migrate inwards. The longer the quills remain and the more a patient moves, the more likely quills are to break and migrate. Quillings are rarely fatal, but sometimes can be if quills puncture vital organs. Quills may also enter joints or cause abscesses.

Porcupines can shoot their quills at animals.

Myth. Porcupines do not use their quills as projectiles, but the quills are released easily in the face of an attack by a predator. When they feel threatened, porcupines can also lash out with their tails. And with up to 30,000 quills on their body, they have plenty to spare.

So, what do I do if my dog has been quilled?

Keep your dog from pawing at the quills, which may cause them to break and become embedded further. Try to minimize your dog’s movement as much as possible, especially if there are quills in the chest or leg area, as movement will cause these quills to migrate further. If there are only a few quills and you have a very cooperative dog, you may be able to remove them yourself. Use a set of pliers or hemostats to grasp the base of the quill. Then pull steadily out to hopefully avoid breaking it. You can ensure you’ve gotten the whole quill by observing the end of it that was embedded  – it should be tapered and come to a point.

In all but a few cases, however, it is best to seek professional help when your dog has been quilled. Quills are very painful to remove due to their microscopic barbs, and trying to remove them at home is often very traumatizing for everyone involved, and it can also lead to more complications. You may be successful removing a few initially, but most dogs will soon begin to protest vehemently because the process is so painful. They may then not allow you to handle their mouths (or affected area) for any reason in the future. Because of this, a visit to your veterinarian or emergency clinic is usually needed for sedation and removal. This should be done as soon as possible to avoid quills breaking off and migrating, or setting up infection. Studies have shown that the quicker quills are removed following the porcupine encounter, the lower the complication rate.

Sedation or anesthesia decreases trauma and stress on your pet, making it much easier to remove quills without breaking them. It also allows for the surgical extraction of quills that have become embedded below the surface of the skin. In addition, there are often quills in the mouth that are nearly impossible to remove without sedation.  Even with sedation and prompt removal however, there may be some quill remnants that cannot be recovered because they are deep enough that they aren’t apparent during the removal process.  In most cases these will not cause serious problems, unless they are in the chest wall or other risky location.  (The vast majority of quills are usually in and around the mouth, or on the limbs.)

With prompt medical care, most dogs recover uneventfully from their porcupine tussle, but a few may experience long-term or even fatal complications. Quills may migrate throughout the body, perforating the heart, lungs, or intestines with deadly consequences. A quill puncturing the eye can ultimately lead to loss of that eye, and quills in the joints can cause chronic lameness.

Avoid falling prey to these common porcupine myths

Take all precautions to minimize porcupine encounters. If your pet does become quilled, make sure to call your veterinarian or your local emergency hospital right away to minimize discomfort and complications.

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