What Do You Do If Your Dog Gets Quilled by a Porcupine?

The dog's injuries were a mystery at first, but we learned what to do if it happens again.


Southpaws Express is a small, transport-based rescue group that I founded in 2008 and now manage, along with my partner, Lucy. “Transport-based” means that we pull dogs from overloaded shelters in certain regions of the country and move them to areas where more adoptive homes might be available.

On a recent transport, our rescue received some dogs and puppies from a partner shelter in rural Tennessee. One of them was Tandy, a lovely, gentle, apparently purebred English Setter who had arrived at the shelter as a stray, wearing a ragged collar but no ID tags.

When we picked her up from the transport, we found her in rather poor condition –- she was thin, her fur was matted and had some sticky substances in places, and she wore several swollen ticks behind her ears and forelegs. And, we noticed immediately, she was covered with strange lumps. All over her body on both sides, from her ribcage to her abdomen to her flanks, she was smattered with these soft bumps on her skin. They didn’t appear to be bothering her –- but we were alarmed. We had never seen a condition like this and had no idea what it could be.

Our experienced vet, Dr. Patricia Ader, did not know, either. We took Tandy to see her two days after her arrival. She scheduled Tandy for a later date when the dog would undergo full anesthesia and multiple site biopsies. After that appointment, there was another week to wait before the lab results came back.

In the meantime, we at Southpaws HQ worried. The vet had a couple of guesses, and one was (gasp!) melanoma. As a rescue, we had to consider what to do if a dog in our care were terminally ill. Or what to do if she were not terminal, but had a life-limiting condition. These were heavy questions.

Ader said she had seen a “little black thing” in each biopsy, but she had not been able to identify it. When the lab results returned, it all made sense.

Tandy had been quilled by a porcupine.

The tiny barbs at the end of each quill had remained stuck inside her and caused little pockets of infection, which created those lumps.

Our vet prescribed antibiotics to treat the infections and said surgery would probably be unnecessary. The lumps quickly began to reduce in size and disappear, and some of the quill pieces emerged through the surface of Tandy’s skin. At times a thin black needle would work itself out into her fur when she was being stroked or massaged. We kept a couple as souvenirs of the poor girl’s misadventures as a stray.

If your dog has a porcupine incident, Ader offers this general advice: “If a dog owner has a dog hit by quills, they should cut them off about halfway to let them air out, and then pull them out. But if they break off underneath the skin, that can cause problems.” So if you don’t feel comfortable with unquilling your dog, see your vet.

It’s not too surprising that Ader had never seen a dog with embedded quills. Porcupines are rare in Rhode Island, although they are present in the upper New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, and to some extent in our neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They also are not common in the Southern states; however, apparently there is a population in the Appalachians of Western Tennessee -– which is where Tandy was found. Porcupines are also quite common in most of the Western U.S.

Porcupines are generally nocturnal, solitary animals. They will not attack a dog and would prefer to flee or climb a tree to escape a predator. However, they’re slow-moving, and if disturbed suddenly, they will use their quills for defense. Some experts even recommend carrying pliers when hiking remote trails where porcupines might be. If you can’t get to your vet’s office quickly, the pliers can be used to assist in pulling out the quills immediately.

As for Tandy, she is thriving in foster care, and it has been a pleasure getting to know this fabulous dog. She is extremely affectionate and kind, well behaved in the house, but alight with joy when she is outdoors –- for a lover of the breed, she is a dream dog. And she is available for adoption. We hope she never meets a porcupine again!

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