Porcupine quills and dogs

In many regions in the United States, a casual evening hike can quickly turn into a prickly situation for your pet. Porcupines are not usually aggressive, but they do scare easily if approached by a curious dog.  When frightened, they release sharp quills which can lodge into your dog’s skin and cause a medical emergency. Dr. Megan Nyboer, a senior clinician in emergency medicine at Cascade Veterinary Referral Center in Tigard, OR, explains what you should do if your pup ends up with a face full of quills.

First, it’s best to learn how to avoid a porcupine encounter for your dog. Understand that porcupines are most commonly found in Northern regions of the United States, and they are more active during summer. They are also more active during dusk and dawn. Porcupines are found in wooded areas and they sometimes venture into residential neighborhoods.

Porcupines typically release quills in self-defense. Dogs are naturally inquisitive, prey-driven animals, so they tend to be the instigators in dangerous porcupine encounters. The best way to avoid a porcupine encounter is to keep your dog on a leash and do not let him roam in areas that may have porcupines.

If your dog does wind up with porcupine quills lodged in his face or body, there are a few steps that need to be taken immediately. First, prevent your dog from biting or pawing at the quills. The quills cause immense pain and stress, and his immediate reaction will be to try to remove them. Biting and pawing can cause quill breakage or push the quills further into the tissue. Next, take your dog straight to an emergency animal hospital. Do not wait, because this is a time-sensitive emergency.

At the animal hospital, the emergency team will likely begin by asking you questions about your pet’s medical history. Pain medication will be administered as soon as possible.

“Pain management is a top priority,” says Dr. Nyboer, “Your dog will likely be scared, stressed and uncomfortable so one of our first considerations is pain and anxiety relief.”

Then quill removal begins. In many cases, general anesthesia is required because it’s usually a painful, time-consuming process. Your emergency veterinary team will use a hemostat, or tweezers-like tool, to gently traction each individual quill out of the skin. Once the visible quills have been removed, your veterinarian will feel your dog’s body for any quills that may be underneath the skin. These quills will be removed by using a scalpel to make small incisions for access.

Quills are barbed and designed to propel further inward, so removal is a meticulous process that requires veterinary skill. That’s why removing quills at home is not recommended.  

Porcupine quills are associated with many medical complications, which is another reason why home removal is discouraged. Quills can break off inside the body and migrate, leading to trauma such as pneumothorax, or air in the chest cavity outside of the lungs, or other respiratory issues. In rare cases, quills can migrate to the heart and cause cardiac complications. Because dogs are often affected by quills in the face, there is also a risk of eye trauma – which would need the attention of a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Because quills can migrate, it’s best to keep a close eye on your dog in the days following the porcupine encounter. If you notice any signs of respiratory issues, go straight back to your emergency vet and be sure to mention your dog your dog was previously treated for quills.

If left untreated, the prognosis for porcupine quills becomes dramatically worse. Untreated cases have a much higher risk of quills in the mouth, swallowed quills and quill breakage.

“When it comes to porcupine quills in dogs, the key is prevention,” says Dr. Nyboer, “And remember that just because your dog experienced porcupine quills before, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Recurrence is common.”

If your dog needs immediate veterinary attention, locate your closest emergency pet hospital.