Your dog faces all kinds of hazards in the field, including porcupine quills, and it’s your responsibility to keep it safe. Sportsmen who take their hunting dogs into the woods in many parts of the United States risk encountering porcupines. Armed with 30,000 sharp quills, a porcupine can put a spiky end to a day’s hunt with a swipe of its tail. Although quills are almost never immediately life-threatening, they absolutely can prove fatal if they are not properly removed and infection sets in. Here’s what you need to know on the topic of porcupine quills in dogs.
Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic images of bird dogs that were quilled by porcupines during a quail hunt in Texas. The photographs capture the severity of what quills can do to a dog, and stress the importance of treating quilled dogs carefully and quickly. Both dogs, Jango and Echo, recovered from the incidents.
Table of Contents
- Removing Porcupine Quills in Dogs
- How and Where Do Dogs Get Quilled
- Immediate Steps to Take
- Professional Help
- How to Pull Quills Yourself in an Emergency
- Final Thoughts
Removing Porcupine Quills in Dogs
A face full of porcupine quills is an occupational hazard among hunting dogs in much of the United States. Although quills usually aren’t immediately life-threatening, they can cause potentially fatal infection if they’re not removed.
When your dog meets a porcupine, separate them and prevent the dog from rubbing or pawing at the quills. See where the quills are. If they are few, and easy to reach, and your dog is docile, use a multi-tool or needlenose pliers to grab quills as close to the dog’s skin as possible and pull them. You may need to use a makeshift muzzle so you don’t get bitten, and have a friend hold the dog.
The best course is to go straight to the vet. They can sedate the dog, get all of the quills in hard-to-reach places and prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. A properly treated dog can be back in the hunt in a day or two.
How and Where Do Dogs Get Quilled?
Dogs are predators, and if they find a slow-moving animal like a porcupine during a hunt in the woods, they may well get a quilling. North American porcupines live throughout the West, in parts of the Northeast, in northern regions of the Great Lakes states and in parts of the Appalachians. They are primarily nocturnal, most active in summer, and they often rest in trees. Dogs can find them on the ground or in low branches.
Quills are actually a porcupine’s weapon of last resort. They emit a powerful odor—described by some as a smelly cheese, and others as similar to human body odor. That scent intensifies when they feel threatened and signals attackers to stay away. They also clack their teeth in warning. When those measures don’t deter the attacker, porcupines turn to swing their tails, deploying the longest of their 30,000 sharp, barbed quills. Porcupines cannot shoot quills, but the quills detach easily and the barbs help them stick into the attacker. Once embedded in your dog, porcupine quills can cause infection and migrate. Some quills, or broken-off quills, may migrate all the way under the skin. In addition, as the affected parts of the dog begin to swell, removing quills becomes more difficult.
Immediate Steps to Take if Your Dog Gets Quilled
First, get your dog away from the porcupine, and do it without getting quilled yourself. The dog will want to rub the quills with a paw or against the ground. Stop it as best you can. Once you’re away from the porcupine, take a good look at the dog. Check inside its mouth for quills, and feel under the skin to see if any partial quills are totally buried.
If your dog only has a few quills in easy-to-reach places, you might be able to remove them yourself. Whether you can pull them depends on how many quills there are, where they are embedded, and on the dog itself. A passive dog might let you pull quills. Others might squirm too much, or even bite you. Pulling quills is often best done with one person holding the dog and the other pulling quills.
If you have to—and you can avoid quills—wrap a lead around the dog’s muzzle for your own safety. Use needle-nose pliers or a multi-tool to grab each quill by the base and pull. The myth persists that if you cut quills they will deflate and be easier to pull. It’s not true. Cutting also increases the chances of a quill splintering, and it adds time to the job. Secure the dog and start pulling.
Get Professional Help from Your Vet
Usually, the best thing to do is go straight to a vet. Not only do vets in porcupine country have experience in pulling quills, they have sedatives on hand that can make the job much easier and safer for them and for the dog. A vet knows how to pull quills out of the inside of a dog’s mouth, and can find quills that may be entirely under the skin.
If you’re traveling to hunt anywhere you might encounter porcupines, find out where the local veterinarian’s offices are. It’s a good idea to locate more than one, as some small-town vets will rotate emergency services. I have a friend who often travels to porcupine country. He brings needle-nose pliers for the quillings that he can take care of himself—as well as a few hundred dollars in cash, which can open clinic doors that credit cards or checks sometimes cannot.
How to Pull Quills Yourself
If your dog isn’t quilled too badly, and it has a docile personality, you might be able to de-quill it yourself. Remember: Your goal is for both of you to be able to hunt tomorrow. So, if you remove the quills out, but get badly bitten in the process, you’re not hunting tomorrow. Here are some pointers to follow when removing quills yourself in an emergency:
- Remember: Pulling quills is often best done with one person holding the dog and the other pulling.
- If you can, wrap a lead around the dog’s muzzle to prevent it from biting.
- Use needle-nose pliers or a multitool to grab each quill by the base and pull.
- Do not cut quills. Cutting increases the chances of a quill splintering, and it adds time to the job. Secure the dog and start pulling.
- Some lightly quilled dogs can go right back to hunting. However, once you have removed the quills, take the dog to the vet to be sure they are all out. If you leave any quills or pieces inside, they can move around inside and cause infection. A vet may find quills you miss, and may prescribe antibiotics.
How do you restrain a dog to get quills out?
Having quills pulled out of its face is painful for a dog. It can squirm and writhe and possibly bite you. If you are hunting with other people, one should hold the dog while the other pulls quills. As a safety precaution, you can take a leash and wrap it around the dog’s muzzle—carefully, to avoid any quills—as a makeshift muzzle. The best and safest way to restrain the dog is take it to a vet where it can be sedated.
Will porcupine quills work their way out?
You cannot leave porcupine quills in a dog to “work their way out.” Quills have tiny barbs that hold them in place and make them hard to pull out. If anything, the quill may work its way deeper into the dog, carrying danger of whole-body infection with it. It is very important to get all the quills out as soon as you can.
Can a dog survive porcupine quills?
Dogs can survive encounters with porcupines—so long as you seek proper treatment. The danger comes not from the immediate damage done by the quills, although it can be quite painful to the dog. Infection from quills that migrate inside the dog are the danger, so you or a vet have to get them all out, and if the vet prescribes antibiotics you have give the dog the full course of meds. Many dogs get quilled one day and are able to hunt the next if properly treated.
Final Thoughts on Porcupine Quills in Dogs
Porcupine quills in dogs are just one of the many hazards hunting dogs may encounter in the field, and as the owner, it’s your job to know how to keep your dog safe. While the sight of your best friend with a face full of quills may be frightening, it’s a problem that you can deal with, although you will want professional help if the dog has an especially bad porcupine encounter.
The good news about porcupine quillings is that they are infrequent. And, in some cases you can pull a few quills yourself and get back to hunting right away. In more serious cases, you need to get prompt, proper treatment, your dog will be no worse for wear and your trip to grouse country won’t be ruined.
The bad news is, dogs don’t learn from one encounter with a porcupine. The only silver lining of a muzzle full of quills for your dog is that you’ll be better prepared the next time it happens.