The Pointed Quill

D. E. Larsen, DVM

“Doc, my old Tank dog, just came home tonight with a few porcupine quills in his mouth,” Ed said into the phone.

I wonder why they either call at dinner time or 3:00 in the morning, I thought to myself as I listened to Ed, hoping I could get back to the table before everyone was done eating.

“I hear that I should be able to pull them out myself,” Ed continues, “what do you think of that idea.”

“Some guys do it,” I said. “I don’t know how they get it done. Most of the time the dog is going to get real tired of the process pretty quick. I just put them under an anesthetic before I start. It’s a lot easier that way, and you don’t end up with a lot of broken and buried quills.”

“He is not too bad,” Ed said, “I might try to pull a few tonight and see how he does. If I have any problems, I will just bring him into the office in the morning.”

“That will be okay,” I said. “Try to get Tank there early, right at 8:00, and I will have some time to take care of him. I have a farm call scheduled for 10:00, and it is going to take me a few hours.”

“If I’m coming, I will be waiting for you at 8:00,” Ed said as he hung up the phone.

Ed was waiting at the door with Tank when I pulled up to the clinic. I could see from the truck Ed’s assessment of quill numbers was a bit off. He said a few quills, old Tank’s mouth, and face was a mass of quills. Probably 200 quills. Just like with eyes, you could never trust a client to evaluate the number and severity of porcupine quills.

“I would say that Tank has a few more quills than a few,” I said to Ed as I was unlocking the front door to the clinic. “I am going to have to get started on him right away, or I will be behind schedule all day.”

“I pulled a couple of quills out last night, and Tank said that was enough, in no uncertain terms,” Ed said as Dixie took Tank and headed for the treatment table.

“We will get him taken care of right away,” I said. “It will take him some time to wake up, and I will want to check him when I get back from the farm call. We will have him ready to go home anytime after 3:00.”

With that, we had Tank on the table, and I gave him a dose of IV Pentathol. Placing an endotracheal tube in a dog with a mouth full of quills can be a painful experience. My usual procedure was to hold the mouth open with a mouth gag, pull the tongue forward with my left hand and hold the epiglottis down with my index finger of the left hand. I could then guide the tube in place, with the whole procedure taking only a few seconds. With a mouth full of quills, there was no way I could stick a hand in that mouth. I would have to use a laryngoscope, it would work okay, just a little more cumbersome.

Tank was under anesthesia, and we started pulling quills. The porcupine quill is sort of barbed. Under the microscope, the tip of the quill sort looks like a shingled roof. When they are pulled, it takes slow, steady pressure, or you will break the tip off. I always hear from clients that it is easier if you cut the backend of the quill off, allowing the air inside the quill to escape, and pulling them is easier. I have never found that to make any noticeable difference.

I pulled the quills with a forceps, holding the skin in place with a finger so as not to bury any small quills in the area. Pull a quill, place it in a pan of water to facilitate getting it off the forceps and easier cleanup. With this many quills, the whole process takes an hour. I have to hurry to keep on schedule.

I would see most porcupine quills in the fall. I think this was because the porcupines were forced to come down out of the trees for water since we were at the end of the dry period. 

Most of the time, one episode was enough to teach the dog that he didn’t want to mess the critters. One time in Enumclaw, I saw 3 dogs, daily for 3 days. Each day there was a different dog with the majority of the quills, and the other two would only have a couple of quills. On the third day, the owner confessed that he was going to have to go porcupine hunting.

Jack was the one exception to the rule.  Jack was a Cocker Spaniel. Like all Cockers, his activity level often exceeded his judgment. I pulled porcupine quills out of Jack at least 5 times, maybe 6.

I have seen a couple of cows with quills in their nose. I have never seen a horse with quills. One cat came in with quills completely through his front legs. It looked like he must have jumped on the porcupine.

Sandy and I were just starting to get ready for bed one Friday evening when the phone rang. It was Cathy, one of their pups had porcupine quills.

“Hello, this is Cathy, the pups have been gone since dinner time, and they just came home,” she says. “Kirk has porcupine quills. Could you take care of him tonight. I would hate for him to have to suffer until morning.”

“I could probably meet you at the clinic,” I said. “Did you check Spock? Many times if one has a lot of quills, the other one will at least have a few.”

“Sam checked them both over pretty well,” Cathy said. “Kirk is the only one with quills. It will take us half an hour to get to the clinic.”

“I will meet you there,” I said.

Looking at Sandy, I said, “I hope this isn’t an all-night affair. People are just not able to make a good judgment call on porcupine quills.”

Both Sam and Cathy were waiting when I pulled up the front of the clinic. They came up behind me when I started to unlock the front door. Kirk was standing with his head sticking between them. He looked at me with his mouth open, tongue hanging out, and panting. Kirk was probably still excited about the hunt and the ride to town. He had 2 quills stuck in the end of his nose.

I hooked a finger behind his canine tooth and raised his nose so I could get a good look to make sure there weren’t any quills in his mouth.

“Is that all he has?” I asked Sam.

“That is all I could find,” Sam said.

I put my door key in my pocket and, with one quick motion, grabbed both quills and plucked them out of Kirk’s nose. I brushed the blood droplets that sprang from the holes with the heel of my hand. Kirk stood there with his tail wagging.

“Let’s go home. Do you want these?” I said, holding the two quills out to Sam. “They are sort of interesting if you can get them under a microscope.”

Sam took the quills, looking a little confused at how fast the problem was handled.

“Do we owe you anything?” Cathy asked. 

“I didn’t have to open the door, I think we are square,” I said.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

2 thoughts on “The Pointed Quill

  1. These stories cover a wide range, evoking everything from laughter to tears, and they are instructive. I would bet you have at lot more than one book worth, probably more like an “All Creatures Great and Small” series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would guess that they are a long way from “All Creatures Great and Small”. But I plan to publish them, maybe in a series of books, in a couple of years. May next week, they will start being in The New Era, maybe once a month.

      Liked by 1 person

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