Dog vs. porcupine: lessons learned in a prickly crisis

At first glance, I thought my dog’s face was covered with feathers.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Porcupine on a tree in Trenton on Dec. 4, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Porcupine on a tree in Trenton on Dec. 4, 2014.

“Oreo’s caught a bird or something,” I yelled to my fiancé Derek as I walked closer to the bedroom window.

As I drew closer to where Oreo was pawing at his muzzle on the lawn, the image came into crisper view. They weren’t feathers, they were porcupine quills.

“He’s been porcupined!” I yelled, running to the front door. Derek was already there, calling Oreo inside.

Confused, Oreo ambled indoors, pawing at his face and trying to lick away the quills embedded in his skin. The quills were much bigger than I expected — giant white and brown needles piercing his lips, his soft white chin, and his little black nose.

I’d only seen a dog stuck with porcupine quills once before. I was a little girl, and my dog Laika got into a tussle with one of the spiky critters, so prevalent in Maine’s woods. I remember my father bringing her indoors and pulling the quills out, one by one.

Looking at Oreo, I was horrified. What were we supposed to do?

Derek held Oreo’s body between his knees and leaned over to inspect the damage. He told me to call the nearest veterinary clinic. I did. They had just closed for the day. The Eastern Maine Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Brewer was the nearest place we could find help after hours, so I tried them next.

Oreo with his porcupine quills. :( May 2015.

Oreo with his porcupine quills. 🙁 May 2015.

“Should we try to get the quills out ourselves?” I asked the woman who picked up the phone.

“Well, are the quills just in the muzzle?” She asked.


“They aren’t in his chest or legs?”


“The mouth?”

“I’m not sure.”

She explained that if they were in his chest, a quill could break off and migrate into his body, puncturing an organ. And if quills were near a joint, they could lodge into the joint and cause painful issues. The muzzle wasn’t as serious. If the quills broke off, they could still migrate deeper, but they’d simply hit bone, and most likely, the body would reject the broken pieces, pushing them out over time.

“We’ll try to pull a few out and see what happens,” I said.

“Call back if you decide to bring him here,” she replied. “We’re very busy and will want to know you’re coming.”

There are currently just four emergency veterinary clinics in the state of Maine for pets to visit after hours, and the Brewer clinic is Maine’s northernmost clinic, meaning people travel there from as far as Aroostook and Washington counties to get help for their pets. The other three clinics are located in Lewiston and Portland (where there are two).

A porcupine I took a photo of in September of 2013. We never saw "Oreo's porcupine."

A porcupine I took a photo of in September of 2013. We never saw “Oreo’s porcupine.”

I approached Oreo, still trapped between Derek’s legs, and grabbed a quill lodged in his wet black nose. I tried to pull it out, but it wouldn’t budge. Oreo reared his head. I tried again, tugging a bit harder, and out it came, followed by a trickle of blood.

One down. About a million to go.

I reached out to grab another quill. Oreo raised a quivering lip and whipped his head away from my hand.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” I said.

“We should bring him in,” Derek said.

So we hopped into the car and hit the road for the 25-minute ride to the clinic. Oreo, who usually sits in the back seat, crawled up front and sat on my lap in the passenger seat. A 50-pound pit bull mix, he isn’t exactly a lap dog, but I wrapped my arms around him and tried to comfort him by running my hands slowly over his back. From time to time, he turned his head toward me and I had to pull back to avoid being stuck by the quills protruding from his snout. I think that was the first time I’d ever refused a kiss from Oreo.

Along the way, I called my friend Heather to tell her there had been a change of plans. She was in town from Boston, and we’d planned to meet her for dinner that night.

“Poor Oreo,” she said when I told her our scenario. “I’ll meet you at the vets.”

At the veterinary clinic, Heather hopped into our car and waited with us for Oreo’s turn to be seen.

“I think the quills are sinking deeper,” I said, inspecting Oreo’s face.

Porcupine quills are barbed, but not like fishing hooks. The barbs are microscopic, according to a pamphlet provided by the clinic, so with a steady pull, they can easily be removed. However, these tiny barbs can cause quills to slowly move deeper into a dog’s body. And I imagine Oreo licking the ends of the quills repeatedly with his tongue didn’t help the situation.

By the time we were ushered into the clinic (about 45 minutes later), I was impatient to get the quills out. Oreo had started to whine with discomfort, and it was breaking my heart. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long, despite the clinic being busy. As we waited, we watched a dog with a cast on his leg leave, and an injured cat arrive.

Oreo at the clinic, panting because he's stressed out.

Oreo at the clinic, panting because he’s stressed out.

“I couldn’t work here,” whispered Heather, a nurse in Boston.

“I couldn’t either,” I mumbled, wincing as the cat let out a painful cry.

Before taking Oreo to be de-quilled, the doctor told us a little but about porcupines. Here’s what I remember, though it certainly isn’t verbatim:

“Porcupines don’t usually run away, and dogs don’t learn, he said. “I’ve seen the same dog in here three times for porcupine quills this month.”

“It looks like your dog just sniffed the porcupine,” he continued, crouching and looking at Oreo’s quilled muzzle. “If he attacked, he’d probably have quills in his legs and chest, too.”

He told us we could call a local game warden, who would either try to hunt and shoot the porcupine or trap it for relocation.

“We’ll be careful and watch Oreo while he’s outside,” I assured the doctor. “We learned our lesson.”

Porcupines are usually most active in the early morning and in the evening, he told us. But they can be walking around at any time of day.

As for the treatment — he was going to remove Oreo’s quills, and he’d have to sedate him for the procedure. The sedation was reversible, so they’d be able to wake him up right after, but he’d be groggy for a day or two.

Oreo at the clinic.

Oreo at the clinic.

“It’s a myth that porcupine quills are poisonous,” the doctor told us. “Porcupines actually produce an oil that make their quills fairly clean, and they don’t really roll around in stuff. So I’m not going to prescribe antibiotics.”

But in the days to come, he told us to keep an eye on Oreo’s muzzle, and if it looked infected, he could write us a prescription.

He then took Oreo’s leash and led him out of the room.

To unwind, the three of us waited at Kosta’s Restaurant and Bar, where we ate good food and drank good beer. The clinic called in about an hour. Oreo was awake.

Oreo a day after being stuck with 30 porcupine quills in the muzzle. He looks great!

Oreo a day after being stuck with 30 porcupine quills in the muzzle. He looks great!

In the lobby of the clinic, we paid about $350. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, and I was grateful for their help. They had pulled out 30 porcupine quills, we learned, which is actually not bad compared to some of the other dogs they see at the clinic.

“He did great,” one of the employees at the clinic told us, leading our drugged-up dog out to us. Oreo walked unsteadily into the lobby, his eyes unnaturally wide and shining. When he spotted us, his tail began to wag lazily, and beelined it to the clinic door. Time to go home.

Oddly enough, he looked great. If I hadn’t been there for the ordeal, I wouldn’t have been able to guess that he’d just had a face full of quills. And by the next day, he was back to his old self.

The porcupine? It’s still out there. And since it has about 30,000 quills, it probably isn’t missing the measly 30 Oreo stole. In fact, he’ll grow new quills to replace those old ones, according to National Geographic.

We never had to worry about porcupines while we were living in downtown Brewer. But now that we’re living in “the sticks,” we’ll just have to be more vigilant about watching Oreo while he’s playing outdoors. Welcome to country living!

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at