How to pull porcupine quills out of your dog.

They are about the size of a large cat, near sighted and they don’t run. Instead they sort of dreamily lumber around in the dark making odd grunting noises and barely acknowledging you if you follow them around with a flashlight. I like to think of them as beavers who joined a punk band, got burned out on tour and are returning back to their roots.

Unfortunately, your dog likes to think of them as giant chew toys. To be fair, it probably does seem like a lot of fun, a waddling big rodent that rustles when you get too close. To a dog that probably seems irresistible. I imagine that the thought process in a dog encountering a porcupine goes something like this, “Oh man, this is going to be awesome, it’s wiggling at me this is going to be so much fun!” Smack “Oh man, this is pretty terrible, I’m not having any fun.” But there are always repeat customers. We had one dog come in four times in the same Spring for quills one year. Depending on the client, I will often relate it to tequila and college students. It’s one of those things that seems like a great idea and a really good time and then suddenly, it’s no fun anymore. But they often go back another day for more.

Dogs almost never get into porcupines first thing in the morning. It’s usually evening, you’re letting them go out for one last pee before bedtime, you’re half asleep while you stand at the door after you let the dog out and he or she comes back with a face full of quills. Well great. Now what?

The following instructions are only intended for people who are within an hour drive of the developed world. If you find yourself a day’s hike out in the wilderness and then your dog gets quills there you can skip the steps and go to the bottom. If you’re that far out in the wilderness and don’t have a hemostat. Shame on you. Be more prepared next time.

Steps to removing quills from your dog:

1. Call your veterinarian. Darn it. You thought I was going to tell you how to do this at home. Did you forget I’m all about the money I can make from clients? Seriously though, porcupine quills are no joke. Here’s an article explaining their shape and why pulling them out awake might be a terrible idea. It’s at least worth a phone call to speak to a veterinarian and explain the situation. Calling the vet should always be free.

2. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions. For one or two quills, I might have you try to pull them at home. Sometimes even one or two quills requires some form of restraint and professional attention. If there are quills in the mouth or quills around the eye or especially, quills near the shoulder area I will always recommend we remove them for you. Always. These evil little buggers are composed to move in a single direction. Usually they migrate out to the surface but not always. Scroll to the second to last paragraph of this article to see what I mean.

3. Be ready for this to take more than one episode. If your dog does a good enough job on the porcupine there may be quills that we can not reach on the first go round. As these move toward the surface, sometimes a separate procedure is necessary to get everything out.

If your veterinarian told you to try to pull them at home or you are out in the wilderness please open this photo in a separate window. See the tool this person is using to remove them? You need a tool like that, pliers might work but hemostats are better. “But Heath, I don’t have hemostats.” Here’s a pair for less than $15. Hemostats

If you’re spending time in the woods these would come in handy in multiple situations. If you fish, even more so. Look back at the photo. Grab the quill down in the dark section and pull straight back to remove it. One quick motion, no twisting and no bending. If your dog bites you during this, that’s on you. Sorry. That’s one reason why we sedate them.

If you’re unlucky enough to find your dog with quills, give your veterinarian or local veterinary emergency clinic a call. And if they do it once, chances are they will do it again.

Thanks for reading.

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Euthanasia Aftermath

I struggled with writing about this situation. I struggled with posting a blog about it. Please try to understand.

A few weeks ago a very good client of mine passed away unexpectedly. She had a little toy breed dog who had been battling some significant but non life-threatening medical issues for the past few years. We had developed a fairly good client-veterinarian relationship and the little dog had gone from being terrified by my presence to being quite happy to see me. I always did have a pocket full of cookies for him after all. Quickest way to a dog’s heart.

I was notified on Wednesday of the woman’s passing and the daughter set up a visit for the coming Friday to have the little guy put down. Apparently, no one in the family could take the dog and with his medical conditions the owner had left instructions to have him euthanized rather than have him surrendered to a shelter or rescue group.

I expressed some concern about the visit when it was scheduled and my employer and I discussed the dog’s history. He was 13 years old, had multiple health issues and could be aggressive when he was not feeling his best. We foolishly decided that I would have a conversation with the owner’s daughter when she brought him in for his visit.

The morning of the visit came. Not that these details are important but they play into the narrative so bear with me. My family was planning a trip to visit my wife’s family in New York. When we do that, I typically drop everyone off in the morning and then pick the kids up from daycare and then get my wife from work so we don’t have to leave a vehicle at her office over the weekend. As would be expected when you are getting five people together for a weekend away from home, I was running late that morning. Veterinary medicine is one of those professions where if things start getting a little out of hand, it snowballs quickly and getting caught up can be a challenge.

I arrived at work to a fairly busy appointment schedule. I am pretty decent at compartmentalizing my work, so there was no thinking about the four hour drive I had ahead of me until 4:30 that afternoon, but also when I’m in an exam room with a client, that’s all I think about. I didn’t plan ahead as much as I would have liked for the euthanasia visit coming in at 10:00 am.

The time came and a very distraught woman brought in a happy but slightly disoriented little dog. The woman was sobbing, able to get a few words out about her mother’s wishes and was in no place to discuss other options. We fell back on our training and guided the woman through the euthanasia process. We put the little dog to sleep and prepared his remains for cremation and because we were running behind schedule we went right into our next appointment. For some reason I feel like it’s necessary to inform you that this whole process took nearly thirty minutes and as we were preparing out back we weren’t happy about it but at the time I did not see a reasonable alternative.

I went for a walk that lunch break to process my thoughts, something was weighing on my mind. My wife called and she was in the middle of a pretty difficult situation and having one of the worst days a veterinarian can have. Little did either of us know she was about to have the worst day she has yet experienced as a veterinarian and in my opinion the worst kind of day a veterinarian can have. Not that that particular detail is important but it plays into the narrative.

I got back from the walk just in time for the first appointment of the afternoon. With appointments and callbacks I didn’t have a chance to even think about anything else until I got in my car that afternoon. When I got in the car I was on a schedule. I had to get home, pack the car for the weekend, I had a list of chores that needed doing before we left. The dogs had to be fed and they needed to do their business before we took off for a four hour drive. I packed the car and picked up the girls. We (they) talked about their day from the daycare to the practice my wife works at. Once at my wife’s practice we started discussing her day and it was such a horrible day the conversation took up a good section of the drive. It wasn’t until we were on the thruway, there is this place on the right hand side when you’re heading south that has log cabin homes on display it was there that my own thoughts started creeping into my consciousness. Like fog settling on a highway at night, they did not bring with them anything good. By then my wife was trying to get a nap in and I was left alone with the radio. I started playing back the day in my head and was overwhelmed with grief as I thought about the small dog I had euthanized that morning.

I still think about him a little bit almost every day. These are the thoughts that run through my head: I wonder if I had brought him home how long he would have really had left. I could have brought him everywhere with me and I’m sure eventually my wife would have come around. I’m just manly enough so that carrying a small white dog everywhere would have looked cool or ironic. How many times in my career is something like this particular situation really going to happen to me? This could have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a dog’s life a little better and I missed it. Not only did I miss it but I was the instrument that ended his life. I wish I’d had more time or had reached out to the owner’s daughter a little earlier. Maybe she would have been adamant that we follow her mother’s instruction but maybe we could have come up with a solution together. I’ll never know.

Self pity aside, this is not a situation that is all that unusual in veterinary medicine. We are often faced with the request of euthanizing a pet for reasons many people might disagree with. The idea of euthanizing a pet to meet the request of an owner after they have themselves died is also not that unusual. It happens. At one point in my career we had a patient whose owner had left him a trust fund and the remaining inheritance wasn’t to be released until the pet passed. You can imagine how the lawyer felt about those veterinary bills. But ultimately, decisions like this are always going to be a part of this profession. Some of them will be a struggle and some of them won’t. This one was and still is. I don’t think that the owner’s family did anything wrong by him, I just wish it had played out differently. Hoping there’s not a next time.

Thanks for reading.

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