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    Bird Dogs - Health Matters

    Incident at Porcupine Hill

    Whether urged on by aggression or curiosity, some dogs just can’t resist getting too close to a fully loaded porcupine. (Photo/Tom Huggler, Outdoor Images)
    Whether urged on by aggression or curiosity, some dogs just can’t resist getting too close to a fully loaded porcupine. (Photo/Tom Huggler, Outdoor Images)
    Incident at Porcupine Hill

    Work and life have interfered with my hunting schedule many times over the years. The balance of owning a growing veterinary practice, raising a family and trying to stay married had led to a sad state of affairs in 2004: it was Oct. 22 in Wisconsin where the ruffed grouse season had been open for a month, and I had yet to unsheathe my shotgun. But I had a plan: I would work until noon on Saturday, jump in the truck with Bell, my 2-year-old Drathaar, drive three hours north, hunt for an hour or so, stay in my favorite “mom and pop” motel, hunt all day Sunday and be back home in time to help put the kids to bed. Simple. What could go wrong?

    For starters, my receptionist had squeezed two extra appointments into the 11:30 a.m. slot, a set of red-hot ears on a Labrador and a cat that was straining in the litter box. Neither of which should have waited until Monday, so my receptionist was right to fit them in, but that didn’t stop me from yelling at her.

    I apologized immediately when she cut her eyes over at me while deftly handling three ringing phone lines. I finished around 1:30. Both my receptionist and technician had graciously stayed late to help.

    As I grabbed the dog from my office and sprinted toward the truck, my receptionist uttered three words that froze me in my tracks, “Your wife called.”

    “I’ll call her from my truck,” I said as I headed out the back door.

    “She sounded angry.”

    I called.

    Apparently, I hadn’t read all of the fine print on the “honey do” list. I drove south to my home for the sake of marital harmony instead of north where the grouse were waiting. I accomplished a couple of tasks I’d been putting off for weeks and finally pulled out of the driveway around 5 p.m. Three hours later and after many near misses of deer along the dark two-lane highway, we finally arrived at the motel. I was exhausted; the dog was bouncing off the walls.

    We got up early Sunday morning, had breakfast and headed to a spot I had scouted late the previous season. I had flushed several birds on a short hunt and had high expectations. Frost sparkled like a field of diamonds as I pulled off the dirt road. I got out, geared up and collared Bell.

    She was full of energy and was quickly out of sight about midway up the hill when I heard a terrible ruckus of growling and yipping and more growling and more yipping. I yelled for Bell, blew my whistle and yelled some more. Finally, she came back to the trail, unrecognizable behind a mask of porcupine quills. She must have attacked and tried to bite the porcupine multiple times. She had hundreds of quills in her face, her mouth, her tongue, between her teeth and all along the roof of her mouth. Great . . .  so much for a wonderful day of hunting.

    Instead, it was going to be an hour’s drive back to Green Bay to the nearest 24-hour emergency hospital, a $500 tab and a full day of waiting around just in time to drive back home. But fortunately, work intervened. As a veterinarian, I know how to fix these problems.

    I pulled out my well-equipped first-aid kit, administered an IV anesthetic, sat on the frosty ground cradling Bell’s head on my lap and proceeded to pull out hundreds of quills with a pair of large forceps I carry just for this purpose. It took less than 30 minutes. Bell recovered quickly in her crate as I drove to another favorite hunting spot where I hoped that the grouse were not using porcupines as bouncers.

    I labeled Porcupine Hill in red on my map and never hunted it again.

    (Hint: If you tell your veterinarian all of your favorite hunting spots, maybe by chance, you’ll meet up there, and he can salvage your perfect day of hunting.)

    Porcupines frequent the same areas that many upland birds do. Encountering one, most dogs feel the need to get too close, some planning all-out assaults, others just wanting a good sniff. Regardless, the result is a face full of quills.

    Quills are modified hairs, and the American porcupine carries approximately 30,000-40,000 of them around on its body. Quills are hollow-like bird feather shafts and have air filling the hollow spaces. They are loosely attached and easily released when the porcupine defends itself.

    It is a myth that porcupines can throw their quills, although it may look like it when they quickly back up and whip their tails in a defensive move. The end of the quill that comes in contact with the dog is coated with hundreds of microscopic scales that act as barbs allowing the quill to easily penetrate skin while creating great resistance to removal. (Do an online search for porcupine quills micrograph and click on links to images to see loads of examples of what I’m talking about.)

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