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How to Remove Porcupine Quills

Few events in the uplands elicit feelings of panic and frustration like a run-in with a porcupine.

How to Remove Porcupine Quills

In almost all mild encounters, dogs bounce back quickly and hunt on, hopefully wiser to the risks of tangling with a porcupine. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

As a veterinarian and bird dog enthusiast, I’ve seen my share of prickly encounters in the field, as well as the clinic, and I empathize with my fellow hunters who have had a dog injured or a hunt cut short by quills. With a little common sense and some basic supplies, however, most of these events are manageable. There are also times when it’s far safer, more expedient, and markedly less stressful to have a veterinarian help you out.  

porcupine sitting in a tree
Abundant in the lower 48, the porcupine has a knack for sharing habitat with upland bird species. They rely on a mail of modified guard hairs to protect against predators. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

Do I Need to Take My Dog to the Vet?

Either on the phone after hours or through panicked DMs, hunters commonly inquire whether or not a particular porcupine incident warrants a trip to the vet clinic. The answer, as you might assume, depends on a variety of factors specific to each situation, dog, and owner. As a rule of thumb, err on the side of caution and take your dog in if you’re worried about it. Peace of mind carries exponentially higher value when our hunting dogs are involved, and there’s no shame in seeking the expertise of a professional. For the sake of the animal, I’d much rather a client get me involved in a minor incident than allow inaction to turn into a total disaster. When in doubt, take your dog to the vet. 


Dog temperament is another parameter that you must consider when contemplating a DIY quill removal. Ask yourself honestly if you have the type of relationship with your dog to control them in a stressful and painful scenario. Are they comfortable with firm restraint and familiar with being handled in painful situations? In my experience, most dogs aren’t. In practice, I have seen owners arrive at the clinic with far worse injuries to themselves from bites and scratches than those found on their dogs. The dogs are patched up quickly and ready to hunt the next day while their owners are out of commission for much longer. Know your limits and those of your dog, and stay safe.

Generally, if a dog accumulates quills around the eyes or in the mouth, I highly recommend getting him to the veterinarian. These areas contain sensitive and vulnerable tissue, and they also create hidden crevices for sneaky quills to fester or migrate. I recall a Brittany that battled the infection of a migrating quill in its mouth for months following an encounter, mostly because his owner failed to notice it hiding along his upper molars. What began as a simple fix ultimately led to multiple expensive surgeries and a small fortune in antibiotics. 

Sure, veterinary professionals are experienced in hunting down sneaky quills, especially those broken off barbed tips, but the real value in making a vet visit is utilizing our access to sedating medications. Your veterinarian can administer a fast-acting injectable sedative that will allow unrestricted access to your dog’s mouth, ears, and other crevices where quills have taken hold. It’s remarkable how well those naughty needles can burrow and hide, especially in a dog that’s tense or protective. While few dogs love the vet, I’d wager many of them would gladly trade the sting of a hundred quills and the stress of battling multiple humans for a single needle poke to the vein and a short nap. 

dog with porcupine quills in face and mouth
Quills that involve the mouth or eyes warrant intervention from a veterinarian. This dog had nearly as many quills in its mouth as he did around his face. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

Proper Technique for DIY Quill Removal

If the number of quills seem manageable, they’re mostly confined to the face and forelimbs, and you’ve determined you can wrangle them out without damaging the bond with your hunting dog, by all means proceed. Needle nose pliers or multitools are standard issue for any upland hunting vest, and they carry the additional value as the preferred equipment for safe and efficient quill removal. 

It’s worth spending time dispelling a few myths that persist in the craft of in-the-field quill removal. With likely more than 10,000 porcupine quills under my belt, I feel qualified to offer my experience. There is no evidence to support that cutting the quills makes them easier to remove. I’ve tried this method to satisfy my curiosity, and I’ve noticed absolutely no difference in the ease with which they’re extracted. 

In fact, I’m opposed to this approach because it carries an added expense of time. While the tiny barbs at the tip of each quill help lock them into place, inflammation and swelling at each entry site significantly contribute to the death grip those pesky modified hairs have on the skin. The more time spent clipping quill tips in vain, the tighter the squeeze brought on by local inflammation. 


I’ve also heard anecdotal reports of dog owners lubricating their porcupine victims in a variety of oils, presumably with the hopes of helping quills slide out. While well-intentioned, I’ve found this strategy creates little more than a slippery dog and a hopelessly messy event for the handler. Additionally, any lubricant that makes the quills more challenging to grip with proper tools only increases the time and effort you’ll invest in this prickly project. 

In the field, I often employ a slip lead as a makeshift muzzle to protect the handler. Pass the loop beyond the quills and cinch tightly, making sure to avoid quills that may be crushed or broken in the process. This strategy keeps your fingers safe and serves as a handle to control the dog in the field.

german shorthaired pointer with porcupine quills in face
Pearle is a repeat offender of porcupine tussles and has yet to gain the upper hand. Most of her encounters are managed in the field. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

With a proper restraint that emphasizes safety for dog and handler, the rest is far from rocket science. Use the multitool to grip a single or small cohort of quills by the white base or shaft.  Employ a firm and purposeful grip and pull with the same enthusiasm. The barb of the quill and the tissue swelling that’s already taken hold will offer some resistance (and it hurts), but with persistence the pesky quills will relinquish their grip. Go slow and don’t get greedy. 

I’ve found that grabbing at too large of swaths increases the likelihood of breaking quills on the outer reaches of your grip, effectively reducing the remaining real estate on broken shafts for safe and complete removal. In the clinic, we place the removed quills in a bowl of water to keep them organized and out of the way. In the field, I recommend at least stacking the removed quills in a central location, as they have a tendency to find their way back into a wiggling dog, especially one prone to rolling or thrashing in the brush after being released from an uncomfortable situation. 

Most dogs feel markedly better following proper removal and a small dose of a veterinary-approved anti-inflammatory. Occasionally, antibiotics are required to manage broken off quill tips with the aid of the body’s own defenses against small foreign objects. Large festering wounds, lethargy, and cough are all cause for alarm and another cue to seek professional help. Fortunately, in almost all mild encounters, dogs bounce back quickly and hunt on, hopefully wiser to the risks of tangling with a porcupine. 

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