Porcupines, “Stinkers,” and Pulling Quills

I fell in love with, “Stinkers,” a.k.a., “Snickers,” when I saw this video of the adorable little guy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5I5H7EeC8k He’s a pet porcupine who was raised by people and acts very much like a little dog, and currently lives at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. His personality is sweet, friendly, and affectionate:

The porcupine is a very tame and seemingly fearless wild rodent.  They have a coat of bristly hairs which conceals two to three-inch long spiky barbed quills, and it can be quite painful if you happen to get, “quilled,” by a porcupine. Their quills have little barbs and, once they embed, they work themselves deeper.  If they happen to work themselves into vital internal organs like the heart or brain, there can be deadly consequences for the victims of quillings. To remove a quill, we cut the extending tip off to expose the inner air pocket, and this makes the process much less painful, and the quill is more likely to come out intact and not break off with the barbed tip still embedded.

(This porcupine climbed the house posts several times last summer. Wikipedia says, “the North American Porcupine reaches about 85 cm/33 in in length and 18 kg/40 lb), have their quills attached singly rather than grouped in clusters, and are excellent climbers, spending much of their time in trees.”)

In Alaska, dogs often make the mistake of trying to chase a porcupine. Since the porcupine doesn’t run very fast, the dogs often receive a mouthful of quills for his or her efforts. All of my dogs have been quilled by porcupines. They either learn, and stop it forever, or they don’t. Sometimes, even if they learn, and stop for a while they will chase a porcupine into the brush and get quilled a couple of times and desist.

Tazlina  (a.k.a. Sergeant Skwib) the Schipperke has been quilled on more than one occasion, but never more than one or two quills until 2011. The most intense quilling she received was when she and Bianka both chased a porcupine together. Bianka Saraswati, my two-year-old Karelian  Bear Dog bitch has received the most intense quilling of my dogs. She has a somewhat strong prey drive. She and Tazlina, our five-year-old Schipperke, got quilled in early May of 2011. When I was walking with them, trying to get some reception for my cell phone, the dogs ran up into the brush barking. By the time I finished my phone call, I had to pull fifty quills out of Bianka’s face and chest and twenty out of Tazlina’s face and mouth.

It took over five hours to remove the quills from the girls (over two hours trying to get to the last quill), and that ate up the rest of my day. Thankfully for Bianka and Tazlina both, I had some topical numbing gel onhand. There was that one last quill that I just couldn’t get to, stuck in Bianka’s nose with the tiniest nub sticking out. It was angled down and embedded in the lower part of her nostril. After two difficult hours of trying to pull it with Bianka whining, and crying, and thrashing her head around, I gave up and went to sleep. By morning, it had embedded too far into her nose, and I could no longer find any quill. So I sent her into town to see the vet. The vet told me that if the end of the quill isn’t sticking out, they can’t get to it either. They tried to find it in her nose, but it had embedded too far.

The result? Our dog has a quill in her face that is still there. They said that it may work itself out eventually. She seems not to be bothered most of the time, but sometimes she grabs her muzzle with both hands and rubs it back and forth as if she is trying to work the quill out. The vet told us that If there are future issues or strange neurological problems, indicating that the quill is working it’s way toward some vital organ, we can fly her to Seattle and get an MRI. Until then, it’s life as usual, with a porcupine quill in her nose somewhere. Because of the angle of the quill, we keep expecting it to come out of the roof of her mouth at some point, but it may work its way back to her throat.  My heart really goes out to her and her quill, and I wonder sometimes, if I had stayed up another hour or so, perhaps I could have prevented that from happening.

The porcupine population exploded last summer, and it seemed like porcupines were everywhere. Bears are the main predator of porcupines here, and there was a (very angry seeming) bear we saw recently that had a smile made of quills. Usually the mother bear teaches her baby bears to hunt porcupines, by demonstrating how to flip over first, exposing the quill-less underbelly, and thus avoiding contact with the quills. Apparently this bear had not been taught the quill-less method by his or her mother. Fish and Game told me that bears generally pull out their own quills with their paws and teeth. This one had not gotten to it yet.

The other summer one of the squatter dogs came by. He was extremely skinny and listless and looked almost dead. If one of my dogs looked half that bad, I would have sent him into town to be checked out long before he got to that state. I could see every one of his ribs. I found several quills around his mouth and removed them. When I looked in his mouth, there were nine quills in the back of his throat. I reached my hand in and gently pulled them out one at a time. He was very cooperative land just laid across my lap the whole time, and didn’t flinch when I pulled them.  The quills were soft and half-dissolved, and the pliant state of the quills after they had been in there a while, gives me some hope for Bianka’s embedded quill.  Hopefully her system will either dissolve it completely, or expel it.

My boy Karelian, YHTRoosevelt has only received three quills and seems to have learned from his sisters’ bad experience. We can only hope. The lesson here? Teach the dogs “No porcupines.” My Karelians and Schipperke know what this means. They learned it the hard way, and now hopefully they know enough now not to pick up any more quills and to leave the porcupines alone.

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