Vet Talk

Dog vs. Porcupine: Same Winner Every Time

The dog is guaranteed to lose

June 3, 2013 (published)
Photo by Chiara Switzer, DVM

In any dog vs. porcupine encounter, the dog is guaranteed to lose. The dog will never learn to believe this, despite the pain from having quills stuck in his body. Despite the anesthesia typically required while the vet pulls the quills out, by hand, one at a time. Despite any repetitive lessons that should constitute aversive conditioning.

I can also guarantee that the dog will never learn that the porcupine has no need to run away. Why would a porcupine run? He may only have one defense, but it's a heck of a good one. He protects his quill-less belly by rolling into a ball, like a giant hedgehog, and the attacker simply falls onto a few of his 30,000 barbed quills. Who knows, maybe part of his defensive move is to hold his breath while waiting for a dog to start screaming in surprise. But that old saw about porcupines throwing their barbed quills as though they were some kind of rodent mega-warrior? Totally not true.

Granted, the porcupine has a few predators - martens, fishers, wolverines, pythons, eagles, great horned owls, cougars, and bobcats - but for porcupines, a dog will always rank as a predator wanna-be.

Porcupines eat foliage. They live all over; check out the map.

The North American porcupine lives in the western U.S. and throughout Canada. This porcupine climbs trees and noshes on pine trees - that's why they are called porcuPINEs. Kidding! They're called porcupines because the name in Latin means "quill pig" (some sources say it means "pig thorn") even though it is not a pig but a rodent of unusual size weighing 12 to 35 pounds. They mostly eat pine needles (not kidding) and bark, plus some roots, stems, leaves, and so on. Their preference for dining al fresco among the trees is why dogs tend to have up close and personal encounters in wooded areas.

In my 20 years of being a veterinarian, I've never seen a dog who learned to leave porcupines alone. They're all repeat offenders. When I was a kid, one of our dogs had three encounters with them in the forest, after which we finally wised up and leashed him when we were there. That leash is the only thing that kept him away from the porcupines. It's too bad more people don't do the same.

Like vampires, porcupines are creatures of the night. That's why dogs don't get nailed during the business day when it would be less expensive to run the dog into the vet for an emergency appointment. Heck no, they only do it when the emergency hospital is the only place open, or you have to call your vet after hours. I've never had one of these cases where the encounter happened in daylight.

It's so painful for the dog that you don't want to wait to see the vet. Immediately after the encounter, the dog will try to rub the quills out by rubbing his face anywhere he can, including on you (you won't be in pain...the sharp end is in the dog). He won't understand he's just pushing the quills in deeper and breaking the ends off so that they are harder to pull out.

The dog certainly won't understand that part of those quills will start migrating immediately. Quills can migrate to nearly anywhere: his face, lungs, haunches, and so on. A migrated quill came out right in front of one of my patient's eye globe; it had traveled up his sinuses and came out between his lower lid and globe. Quills can pop out weeks after the incident and can protrude from almost anywhere on the dog's body. I've heard of dogs dying from quills in the lungs or heart, and I heard of one that migrated to the brain. Here in Wyoming, pet owners know to bring the dog in immediately after the run-in.

Photo by Teri Ann Oursler, DVM

Dogs need general anesthetic to withstand all the yanking. Nonetheless, I've only had one dog, a lab mix, that could sit there awake while I pulled them out. Normally you'd get bitten trying to do that while they are awake. That dog is an escape artist and has five or six encounters a year.

The top photo was taken by a colleague, Dr. Chiara Switzer. She said that Buddy, the lab/chow mix, went flying to the other dog's rescue when he heard Dexter yelping. Dexter got about two dozen quills; needless to say, Buddy got the worst of the damage. She said Buddy still looked kind of proud of himself, though. There were a few buried in his feet that she couldn't get out.

The dog in the other photo was one of my patients. Looks uncomfortable, doesn't he?

Unlike bees who die after the loss of their only stinger, the porcupine grows new quills to replace the ones embedded in a dog. With over 29,000 quills to spare, he doesn't have to worry about predators while he grows new quills. Dogs are the ones who should worry, but of course they don't, the poor daft babies. They're too busy having fun romping in the forest until they find a porcupine and their brains evaporate.

The only prevention that I know of is to leash the dog when you're in the woods. Dog owners need to understand that the dog will not learn about porcupines, so when you're hanging out together in the forest enjoying the fun part of nature, Your best friend's best friend is the leash.


June 10, 2021

Didn't know much about porcupines until dog decided to run into the woods and did not listen. Luckily it was not in her mouth just the snout. I live in a ski town and the vet doesn't really always answer the emergency line and town is an hour away. I was able to pull a few out that weren't super deep. I was concerned they would migrate deeper while I waited. Luckily my neighbor was experienced with curious dogs and porcupines and was able to help me. I'll talk to the vet in the morning to see if she needs a check up

January 30, 2021

My dog just went after a porcupine for first time today. She went back after the porcupine and killed it. So I guess porcupine isn’t always guaranteed to win.

Beth Stewart
August 22, 2020

Here in Juneau, Alaska porcupines are out and about any time of day.  My Newfie wanted to be friends with every animal he met, and he licked two porcupines before we quit taking that path!

Donna Fling
August 22, 2020

Hope he is well.

May 23, 2020

Our poor boy is currently sleeping off the sedation from his 2nd encounter with porcupines this month. Both of them were in the early afternoon hours. Luckily this one wasn't nearly as bad as the last one however he still required heavy sedation to remove them from his mouth. We too are struggling to keep him safe as he is a young high energy husky that needs more running than the leash allows and escape artist to boot. Has anyone had any experience with geo fencing collars? We have 50+acres of woods in our yard and he digs under fences to the point we have installed metal bars into the ground under them...

September 4, 2018

My granddad was a country vet for 45 years. He had an especially porcupine addicted border collie that got quilled somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 times. The last time he ever messed with a porcupine my granddad pulled the quills without anesthesia because he was a 3 day horseback ride into the woods while elk hunting, and wasn't packing his vet gear. The dog lived another 8 years and never touched another porcupine.

Linda Cowher
August 22, 2016

This was a very interesting article, thank you. I wanted to comment because, yes, my pit bull, the biggest sissy you could ever encounter, and very nosey if I may add, came across a porcupine just last evening, and I will tell you that I have never seen anything like it in my life. My poor Cyrus had Quills covering his ENTIRE left side, and in his lips and nose. I had no idea what I was going to do about this because I could plainly see his pain, which I too felt, and I had no knowledge of what to do in an instance such as this. So I called a friend and I removed them myself. It was not easy nor was it prompt! lol. He is 4 and very unfamiliar with wildlife and things that creep in the woods because my son raised him in the city, in an apartment, I live in the country so that is a big change and he is adjusting well AND learning quickly. This is something that I will laugh about soon but not quit yet because he is still whimpering and limping so tomorrow I am going to take him to the doctor for a full exam and a rabies shot. Thank you for this article.

March 17, 2015

This happened to my pitbull doggy, Lia, yesterday morning. One of the rare times she can wander in the woods without a leash. She looked the the dog in the top photo. I cried! She immediately went to the vet at 8 a.m. and had surgery to remove them. Thank God!!! It was terrible....No more walks without a leash for her!!

John Schade
February 5, 2016

I've had 6 German Shorthair Pointers over the past 30 years. All of them have had encounters with porcupines ; None at nite. With all dogs except my current 15 month German bred male, I've been able to get the quills out with a leather an tool in the field and continue hunting. My current pup will honor ( back ) my older pointer and hold with her when she points a bird . But after backing and holding about a second, he'll attack the porcupine. The two attacks, about  3 weeks apart involved 150-200 quills, a one hour drive to the vets holding the steering wheel with one hand and the injured dog's collar with the other, 2 hour long procedures w/ some surgery, about $200-$350 for the procedures ( w/ sedation ). I'm looking for an experienced person who can recommend a sure and proven way to break this super dog of this behavior. If I can't do it ,he'll be sold or ,worse, become a 64 # coddled  lap dog for my partner- a fate worse than death for a dog with his bloodlines. Thanks for any help! John

Sheree Greenspoon
November 14, 2015

I have 2 very large purebred German Shepherds and I live in the woods. They have a very strong hunting urge and have caught squirrels and other small animals. For exercise we walk on the trails behind my house and I have had terrible experiences when the dogs met up with porcupines. After the last encounter cost me $800., I was determined to find a way to make my dogs avoid porcupines. It is important to keep in mind that the dogs are miserable after getting and removing all those quills. I asked the vet to keep the quills and put them in a jar. Then every day, before the walk , I would make them smell the quills and I would say, "NO PORCPINES" five or six times. It got to the point where I would just show them the quills and they would shy away. This took several months and I always kept a close eye out for porcupines on our walks. Well today my 4 yr. old male ,Elvis and his friend Kato were out with me and i noticed them scratching and reacting to something near a stump. I noticed Elvis going close and then shying away. The puppy Kato was unsure and so he imitated Elvis. My other 7yr. old shepherd Lola wasn't even interested. When I got closer I saw that it was indeed a porcupine curled up with it's quills exposed. I yelled NO PORCUPINES and he came away. i was so relieved. So I suggest you try saving the quills and reminding the dogs that porcupines are definitely a big NO! It seems to have worked for us.

George Shelley 
May 23, 2015

Although porkys don't shoot their quills, if you've ever been there front and center during an attack you might notice that their skin "moves /jumps" very quickly especially right where the dog is biting them, almost like its aiding in pushing the quills into their final destination.. remember rodents like cats and most animals have a final layer of thin muscle right under the subcutaneous called the Cutaneous Maximus which gives a cat the ability to stand its hair up..I believe a porky has an  increased ability to quiver and twitch its skin to help drive home those weapons. I've seen this first hand many times with my dumb dumbs and they never learn..Here in Northeast Pa. all my encounters with porkys have been in the morning hours they usually go to sleep (eventually) during the day and springtime is mainly when I encounter them...

March 13, 2015

All my porcupine encounters have been during the day. One dog (Jack Russel mix) never learns after being quilled 8 times. Three of those he had to go to the vet because they were in his mouth. My newest addition of a Staffy mix sniffs them out and goes after them on our grassland outings.  He's been to the vet twice for it, the other 4 times I was able to remove them myself. My Border Collie mix will only go after them if the other two get him sooooo excited that he can't help himself or I'm close enough to stop him.  Where I'm at there are a lot of draws with shrubs and the porkies hang out in the shrubs so the dogs can get to them but are somewhat protected by the shrubs.  This is the only place I have to run them - no dog parks in this rural town.  So, I am still searching for a way to train them off of porcupines just so the dogs can get some exercise.  All three are breeds that need more than leash walking to work out their energy.  sigh.

April 25, 2014

We have an Alaskan Malamute and a large fully fenced yard.  The porcupines manage to get through or over the fence only to find a 100lb furball waiting for it.  Our dog attacked two porcupines last summer - killed one and the other escaped.  Lesson is not to think your dog is completely safe.  A leash is the best defense.  It's not worth having to see your dog go through all that pain.

March 18, 2014

We let our dogs out on a run. They each have their own. One night our large dog woke us up to go out. We put them both out. When they came back in, the terrier was laying next to me and he kept chewing. I took him in the bathroom and he looked like he had a mustache. I thought he had something in his mouth. It turned out to be full of quills, but it must have been a small porcupine. My husband came in with pliers and got most of them out. My baby never made a sound, but I knew he was relieved when they were out. The next morning I kept finding more, so I took him to the vet. They only got 3 or 4 more out. We had taken more than 50 out. Even after coming home from the vet, there were still more on his legs.  He is almost 12 now and that was his first and hopefully, his last, encounter with a porcupine!

Kim Colley 
June 3, 2013 

I feel bad for both of those babies.

Ruby Barry
June 5, 2013 

That must be bad and painful, poor dog, hope you can get all the quills out

Charlotte Wideman
June 5, 2013 

If you live in areas where you know this happens why aren't there warnings for people to leash their dogs to protect them? We have warnings to keep them in due to heat or cold. People for being smart are sometimes dumb to things that should be common sense.

June 5, 2013 

When we were in Italy, one of our cats went to sniff a little hedgehog. He hissed and jumped back with no quills stuck in him. He never repeated. Cats are smarter than dogs.

June 5, 2013

How are they both doing now? Poor babies!

Kathy Krumm 
June 5, 2013

It's a no brainer to keep these dogs away from porcupines at all cost! And it's also a no brainer that dogs shouldn't be runnin' loose in the woods at night or ever!

Fran Mcmahan
June 5, 2013 

I guess Buddy wasn't intubated?

June 5, 201 3

I completely disagree with porcupines and these episodes happening only at night. Both episodes when my dog tangled with one was during the day. not even at dusk! Also, there have been plenty of times that I have seen porcupines during the day. I have all manner of wild life in the woods where I live.

Pamela Vondrasek
June 5, 2013

I wondered if you cut the ends off, just the tips to let the gas out of them before you pulled them? My dad used to nip the tips, he said they came out easier when the farm dogs got into the porcupines, we didn't take them to the vet in those days. But the dogs didn't bite him. The poor things!

June 5, 2013

The first dog pictured makes my stomach turn, I'm really hurting inside but curious to know actually how many quills were inside his mouth?

June 6, 2013

Oooo Is toooo painful!!! Poor babes!!!!

June 6, 2013

My dog was hit in the afternoon. I think it was a young porcupine.  The 7 quills were quite small and in his nose.  I got them all out. But I had to lay on him to do it...He had to learn to be afraid of deer the hard way by getting stomped and head butted by a doe with two fawns.  When a big porcupine wandered through recently, he barked like mad but stayed out of reach.  I think, (hope) he learned his lesson.

June 6, 2013

BLESS THEIR HEARTS!!!  I pray those babies are okay!

Jan Koso
June 6, 2012 

My dog Brownie has been to the vet at least 16 times for porcupines. He is an escape artist from any leash or collar and goes for them at any time he can get loose. He was out on a Monday, had them so bad the vet kept him overnight...came home on Tuesday then on Wed he got out again somehow and came back filled with quills again. All of these times were during the daytime...mornings.. not night time.

Laura Murphy
June 6, 2013 

Omg how painful that must be! Especially in the first dog's mouth! Yikes! I hope they both survived.

Dalton Green
June 6, 2013

Poor things, the first dog looked like he/she was in tremendous pain. I hope they had gotten better.

Marilyn Pesula
June 6, 2013

As I live in Florida, I guess I don't have to worry about my Labbie getting quilled, but your article is very interesting, I learned a lot. Thanks.

Phyllis DeGioia (VetzInsight Editor)
June 6, 2013

Both dogs are fine and these photos were taken a few years ago. Dr. Switzer's team of three people spent an hour removing the quills from Buddy (first photo) and they were all surprised that it did not take longer. It would have been nearly impossible to intubate. One vet spent 20 minutes removing the other dog's quills. Buddy came back the next day because a quill migrated out over his right eye, and it was removed. Dr. Oursler said the quills are hollow already and there is nothing holding the gas in. I'm not surprised that there have been incidences during the day.

Barb Week 
June 6, 2013 

We have porcupines come through our yard all hours of the day. I had a 2/3 wolf/husky. She tangled once with 15 quills. Let us pull them. Next time she walked it down the road side by side till it was gone. Smart girl.

Allie Joiner
June 7, 2013

Poor poor dogs. I hope they will be okay.

June 7, 2013 

Years ago I had a dog that got fixated on attaching porcupines.  He never learned to leave them alone.  Eventually he got quilled in the eyes and pulled his eyeballs out with his own paws.  By the time he got home the eyeballs were hanging by the optical nerves.  I had to put him down.  It was terrible.  Keep your dogs locked up especially at night.

Kathy Shaw
June 7, 2013

Our lab mix when I was a kid did not learn his lesson.  We had no vet, but did have a doctor's office.  He would sedate, never went to sleep, the dog and let me work on him in the back room.  I snipped the ends and just took a lot of time.  Bubbie never bit, just lay there.

Victoria Ravdin 
June 7, 2013 

That's nasty. Poor dog, that first one turned my stomach. Is there really gas in the quills? Or is that generated in the wound? Never heard anything about that before.  Here's an interesting article that tells why North American porcupine quills are worse than the rest, and also how they are helping medical science.

Phyllis DeGioia (VetzInsight Editor) 
June 7, 2013

Dr. Oursler says there is  gas in the quills.

Kim N 
June 8, 2013 

That's awful I hope they are gonna be ok.   Ps Dr Marty Becker is very nice looking

June 8, 2013 

Poor dogs! Concerning porcupines - I live in Texas, but while I was in Arizona, I was riding with a native there. We saw a porcupine, and the driver stopped the truck and tapped it on the head with a stick.  I asked why he did that...  he replied that they are a bad omen, if you see one, you are supposed to shoot it, or they will ruin your hunting season.  Tapping it on the body tells the animal that he was close enough to kill it, but spared it.

June 9, 2013

Porcupines are not just "creatures of the night" in Nova Scotia. My dogs have gone through three nasty encounters with porcupines and all three have been during the day. The most likely is during the day when it is rainy.

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