How to Survive a Porcupine Encounter

Porcupines are medium-sized rodents well known for their ability to defend themselves by depositing barbed quills into their attackers. But contrary to common myths, porcupines can't launch their quills at you, and they're more likely to run away in avoidance of humans than run towards you in attack mode. Nonetheless, if a porcupine deposits its quills into human flesh, the result can be painful and infectious, so follow these guidelines next time you stumble upon a porcupine in order to survive an encounter.

Porcupines: Separating Myth From Fact

Porcupines live in the Americas, southern Asia, and Africa, and they’re often the size of a cat or medium-sized dog. Porcupines vary in color from brown to gray and--rarely--white. They’re covered in spines, or quills, that serve both as camouflage and as a defense mechanism. You may encounter a porcupine in any season and at any time of the day, but they are nocturnal and forage for food on the ground or in trees, so you’re more likely to encounter a porcupine at night as it searches for food.

It’s a myth that porcupines can aim and shoot their barbed quills at predators; instead, a porcupine’s quills will detach from the porcupine’s body as a predator comes in contact with them. A porcupine may also shed or drop quills when it shakes its body. The porcupine’s quills are made of thick overlapping scales of keratin, and they’re barbed, so when they’re deposited into a predator’s flesh, they will detach from the porcupine. This process is not painful for the porcupine, which will eventually regrow the quills, but the barbed quills may be difficult to remove and can cause infection in the predator--or in the unlucky victim of a porcupine encounter.

Surviving a Porcupine Encounter

Since porcupines are nocturnal, be especially alert when hiking at night, and be aware of your surroundings, especially if you're in a likely porcupine habitat. North American porcupines can climb trees to search for food, but African varieties forage for food on the ground. Wear a headlamp when you hike at night, and hike along clear trails so that you can see a porcupine before you stumble into one.

Porcupines are generally fearful of large animals such as humans, and they’re not prone to make aggressive attacks. If a porcupine feels threatened, its quills will stick up to deter potential predators. A porcupine can also swing its quill-covered tail towards a potential attacker, but porcupines are generally nearsighted and slow-moving, so they won’t likely respond to your presence by launching a vicious attack.

Without turning your back, walk slowly away from a porcupine that appears threatened, and either give the porcupine plenty of space to leave the area or walk around it, allowing several feet of space as you’re passing. Make sure that you don’t startle the animal or walk closely enough to come in contact with its quills.

How to Remove Porcupine Quills and Treat Injury

Remove porcupine quills promptly so that swelling does not make the process more painful. If you have scissors or a knife and pliers in your gear kit, use these tools. Cut off the end of the quill to make removal easier by relieving pressure in the quill, and then grip the quill firmly with pliers. Remove the quill in one strong, straight pull, being careful not to twist it or break it in the process. Do not pull out quills with your fingers, as the barbs might cause damage to your fingers. Repeat this process for each quill that you need to remove.

If you are at home, you may make quill removal easier by mixing together a solution of vinegar and baking soda into the tub and soaking embedded quills in the solution until they soften. After removing all quills, wash the affected area with soap and water, and apply antibiotic ointment. Take painkillers or ​antihistamine as needed or directed to lessen pain and swelling. Monitor the area for signs of infection, including redness, swelling or oozing. Follow up with a doctor at the first sign of infection, and seek medical attention immediately if the quills have damaged a vital part of the body or if they’re lodged in the face, eyes, or mouth.