Removing Porcupine Quills From Cattle
How to Remove Porcupine Quills Safely
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Heather Smith Thomas — Removing porcupine quills from pets, cattle, and other livestock is an unpleasant task for everyone involved.
The porcupine is a peaceful, timid rodent whose unique method of self-defense often causes grief to inquisitive animals. A porcupine can be very damaging to trees (killing them by eating the bark), and a hazard to curious livestock. Being slow of foot, he defends himself against predators with sharp spines that grow as part of his hair coat. He has about 30,000 of these multi-barbed quills that regrow when lost or broken off.
When threatened or frightened, he bristles with needle-sharp quills he can raise or flatten at will. He can curl into a ball to protect his face, belly and the underside of his tail, which have no spines. The quills are very sharp and only loosely attached to his skin, easily becoming embedded in the flesh of a predator. If pestered by a rat hunting dog or a curious horse or cow, he may swat with his tail, driving quills deep into his tormentor’s flesh. He cannot “shoot” his quills; a quick slap of the tail is enough to stick them in any animal that gets too close or drive them through a person’s heavy glove. A dog or coyote with a face full of quills may starve to death because of the pain and difficulty in eating. The quills may work into the mouth and throat as well.
Quills stuck into flesh tend to keep working deeper because of the victim’s muscle action. The black portion of the quill is covered with a layer of very small, very sharp barbs that look almost like fish scales when viewed under a microscope.
Porcupines live in forested or brushy areas in northeastern and western states, Canada, and Alaska. Their numbers can increase dramatically wherever their natural predators have been reduced. The fisher, bobcat, and cougar are their main enemies, flipping the rodent over and biting at the unprotected underside.
The porcupine does most of his solitary wandering at night, much like other pests and predators, but is occasionally out and about during the daytime, except when sleeping in a hollow log, rock crevice, or up a tree (sprawled over a limb, with feet dangling). In spring and summer, this prickly fellow likes to nibble flowers and leaves as well as bark; in winter he dines mostly on tree bark. He even eats the bark of evergreens—which few other animals will touch.
If he wanders through a pasture on his way to and from his meals, a curious horse or cow is apt to get its nose full of quills. This is a frequent problem on our ranch; we’ve pulled many quills out of cows, calves, bulls, our dog, and several horses. Often it’s the young ones who become victims; they are intrigued by the odd-looking, slow-moving critter, and curiosity gets the best of them. They get swatted in the face when they pester the porcupine or get a nose-full of quills when they try to smell it.
There are several myths about removing porcupine quills. Some folks claim you should soak them in apple cider vinegar to soften them so they’ll pull out easier. Others think quills are hollow and filled with air and would be easier to pull out if cut in two (the idea being that a collapsed quill, with air let out, will come out better). Other folks say you should twirl the quill as you pull it out.
But our veterinarian Dr. Robert Cope says these myths about removing porcupine quills are untrue and these “remedies” are counterproductive. Twirling a quill will only cause more pain for the animal since the tiny barbs are caught in the flesh. And cutting the quill may make it more difficult to pull out. As he states, “The shaft of a quill is solid, so snipping the end with scissors accomplishes nothing except to leave a shorter shaft for you to try to grasp. We sometimes have dogs brought into the clinic that have had the quills cut off for deflation purposes. By the time the dog arrives at the clinic, several of the shortened quills have penetrated well below the skin, where they become impossible to locate.” He says that a broken off quill that is entirely below the skin surface is almost impossible to remove.
As for soaking the quills in vinegar, he says “It is true that a mild acid such as vinegar will indeed make the quill soft, but it is not easy to soak the portion of the quill that is embedded in the skin, and the part below the skin line is the part holding the quill in place. Like cutting the quill short, soaking in vinegar only serves to make the quill harder to remove, as it makes the exposed portion more likely to break off as it is grasped.”
The best way to remove quills is to immobilize the animal (put a cow in a chute, have someone hold the unfortunate horse or dog and distract it) while the quills are pulled out with needle-nosed pliers. A straight, quick jerk works best. The quills come out nicely if you get a good grip on them with pliers and give a quick pull. Don’t pull to the side or they’ll break off and be hard to get out. If embedded thickly, you can sometimes get three or four at once. Otherwise, it’s best to take them individually; you’ll get a straighter pull and not be so apt to break any off.
Once you get them all out, double check to make sure. Feel the skin to see if there are any broken-off pieces you might have missed, hidden in the hair. Rubbing the nose and muzzle after you get the quills out is often appreciated by the animal, easing the pain where the quills have been pulled.
Feel inside the mouth (around lips and gums) in case there might be some inside. Usually, if you remove quills soon after they become embedded, they won’t be in too deep, few will be broken off yet, and they will be easier to get out. Even broken off quills can be grabbed with the needle-nosed pliers if you can hold the animal still. But sometimes quills may be broken off or so deep they are hard to get, and you’ll need veterinary assistance to get them out or to immobilize the animal, especially a horse or a dog. Some horses may have to be tranquilized before removing porcupine quills so that they will allow someone to pull quills from their nose or muzzle. Keep track of the quills you pull out and get rid of them. Don’t leave any lying around where they might poke into something or get into hay or feed where an unsuspecting animal might eat them.
Have you had to deal with removing porcupine quills from your animals? Were you able to do it yourself or was a vet involved?
Originally published in the May/June 2011 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.