There are a lot of misconceptions about porcupine encounters and if your dog gets quilled, it creates a difficult and dangerous situation. If you can get to a vet, don’t hesitate, go immediately. If you can’t because you are in the backcountry, see below.
Porcupines are the third largest-sized rodents in the world. They live in many rural areas in North America, and range in weight between 15 to 35 pounds, or about the size of a large fat cat. The average porcupine has 30,000 quills, and they regrow them when they lose some. These quills are like straight fishhooks. The shaft has scales that act like barbs that cause the quills to keep moving deeper into the tissue of the animal they hit.
If not removed, quills can migrate to nearly anywhere in a dog: the face, lungs, haunches, anywhere. In one instance I know, a migrated quill came out right in front of their dog’s eye globe. Quills can pop out weeks after the incident and can protrude from almost anywhere on the dog’s body. I don’t mean to get gruesome here, but you need to know that quills can move through muscle, ultimately penetrating body cavities and internal organs. Because the quills carry bacteria with them, they can cause infection and abscesses.
Porcupines cannot shoot their quills at an assailant. That said, the quills detach so easily from the porcupine’s skin once they come into contact with an animal attacker that it almost seems like they were propelled. Porcupines will also use their quill-filled tail like a club, swinging it at a potential threat. It is not unlike the Cholla cactus that does about the same thing with its spikes.
Dogs do not seem to learn from a painful encounter that they should avoid going after a porcupine even second time around. Stories of multiple hits on a dog are common. The only prevention that I know of is to leash your dog when you are in the woods where porcupines have been known to hang out. If your dog is off leash, keep a sharp eye for behaviors that indicate they are curious or about to attack something in a bush – that is usually where a porcupine is hiding, especially during the day.
Porcupines are not just nocturnal despite what you read. Every incident between a dog and a porcupine I have either witnessed or heard of happened during the day. If you are in an area known to harbor porcupines, leash the dog even during the day.
What to Do in a Hit
If you can get to a vet quickly, that is your first priority. Try to restrain the dog from brushing or biting at the quills, as that will only push them in further. I know, that is not easy.
If your dog is peppered with dozens or hundreds of quills, removal is too painful, especially if they are in sensitive areas. You must reverse course on your hike, maybe carry your dog if you can, and get to a vet as soon as you can. Most often the vet will need to anesthetize the dog to do the removals.
It is important to monitor your pet for behavior changes or discomfort several days after removal just in case any of the area becomes infected or any quills remain stuck under the skin.
If you are far from a vet and there are only a handful of quills to deal with, that is why there is a multi-knife with pliers in my recommended equipment list. Despite many recommendations to the contrary, you may opt to remove the quills yourself. The technique I have used is to restrain the dog, grab the quill close to the skin with the pliers, and pull quickly straight out. If you pull at an angle the quill will likely break, leaving the business end in the dog.
Some dogs will dislike this enough to possibly retaliate with a bite. You know your dog; you choose the best option. My dog Emme got hit exactly once in a tough story that is in the book. If you tried pulling on her hairs with a comb while grooming, she would snarl and faux bite, but at the porcupine incident she was like Rambo sewing his own skin gash. She just looked at me, was rock still with no restraint, and I yanked quill after quill and she just took it. Once you read about her whole personality in my book, The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain, that will not surprise you.
On another occasion when a friend’s Golden Retriever got hit, he restrained the dog while I removed the quills and that worked too. But I hear those may be unusual cases. It is much more effective grabbing the quill with a pliers than with your fingers.