The North American Porcupine’s Quills, Fur, Hair, and Tail

The North American Porcupine is a New World Porcupine that everyone has seen in pictures, but not so many have seen up close. Designed to spend much of their time in trees, there are actually quite a lot of interesting facts about these creatures and that’s going to be the focus of this article.

Today we’re going to satisfy your curiosity a bit in regards to North American Porcupines by telling you all about their quills, as well as their fur, types of hair, and their specially evolved tails. To help keep things concise, we’re going to do this in the form of the most frequently asked questions in regards to these amazing animals.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at what everyone’s been asking about the prickly North American Porcupine!

What Are Porcupine Spikes Called?

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You could call them ‘spines’, but those Porcupine spikes are commonly known as ‘quills’. Just looking at them, you can tell that they are sharp, but a close look will show you that these quills have scales on them that overlap to make barbs as you’d see in a fishhook.

This makes the quills more difficult to remove so that the Porcupine can get away from predators who have made the mistake of coming too close and learned firsthand how those defensive spines work.

Do Porcupines Naturally Shed Their Quills?

Yes, Porcupine quills have an ‘expiration date’ and are shed much like the hairs on our heads. Within a couple of days of a quill being shed or employed defensively, new quills start growing in, at a rate of 1 millimeter every 2 days until it reaches its full length of 2 to 3 inches.

With 25.4 millimeters to every inch, it takes around 50 days per inch of the quill, and with quills averaging 2 to 3 inches in length, this means 100 to 150 days before they reach their full expected growth.

How Many Quills Do Porcupines Have?

150 days sounds like a lot, but the Porcupine is designed to accommodate this by ensuring that they always have a surplus of quills. Every adult North American Porcupine carries with them a sharp defensive arsenal of 30,000 of these quills, and their length and design vary slightly based on where they are located on the body.

While 30,000 quills sounds excessive, just remember that you have 100,000 hairs just on your head alone, and that helps to put things in perspective.

Are Porcupine Quills Actually Hair?

Porcupine quills are made of keratin, which is the same substance that human hair and fingernails are made out of. Just as our own keratin makes hair or harder nails, a Porcupine’s keratin will form into nails, hairs, and quills as needed.

Are Quills Soft or Hard?

When a Porcupine is still a baby, those quills are softer and more flexible than those of adults. When the porcupine is born, the quills are completely soft and pliable, which helps protect the porcupine’s mother while giving birth as well as during the early stages of the baby porcupine’s life.

Once the Porcupine is older, however, then quills feel like what they are – very stiff hairs with sharply-pointed tips.  

Can A Porcupine Run Out of Quills?

While theoretically possible, it’s highly unlikely that a Porcupine is ever going to run out of quills. After all, they have around 30,000 of them, and these quills grow back when they are shed or used defensively.

Until Nature develops a predator that is basically a ‘living pincushion’, Porcupines will never need to worry about losing all of their quills.

How Long Does It Take For A Porcupine To Regrow Quills?

It takes approximately 150 days for a Porcupine to grow back their longest quills, which have a length of 3 inches. Not all of their quills are this long, however, so smaller ones will be fully regrown in much less time – about 1 inch per every 50 days.

How Do Porcupines Use Their Quills To Defend Themselves?

The way that Porcupines defend themselves is both simple and elegantly efficient – basically by raising a ‘spiky shield’. When the Porcupine feels unsafe, they simply raise their quills, and the barbs in these quills make sure that they stick against predators who get too close.

The quills then detach from the pressure of the surprised predator pulling away, and the Porcupine can attempt a quick escape while the animal that tried to eat them is frantically trying to remove the quills.

Porcupines CANNOT Shoot Their Quills

While cartoons like to show Porcupines ‘puffing up’ and shooting their quills out like missiles, actual quills don’t work that way. Many people believe otherwise because they’d seen predators with quills stuck all over their faces.

This occurs because the quills detach quite easily when defensively arrayed – but not because they’ve been ‘shot out’. For quills to work that way, they’d need some sort of propellant in their quills or an acrobatic method of delivery – neither of which the Porcupine has or even needs.

Do Porcupine Quills Have Venom?

No, Porcupine quills do not contain any venom. They are naturally barbed, however, so that they will stick in the Porcupine’s foes and be harder for them to quickly pull out.

This can lead to scars if a barbed quill is pulled in such a way that it tears a lot of skin and if the barb remains stuck, the wound can become infected – just like any other puncture wound.

Does It Hurt The Porcupine When It Loses Its Quills?

No, it doesn’t hurt when a Porcupine loses its quills. While they are long and look quite impressive, those quills are not rooted very deeply into the hosting skin, so they detach quite easily whenever it is needed.

Do Baby Porcupines Also Have Quills?

Porcupines are born with quills, but they are very soft at first, rather like a batch of long hairs. After 2 to 3 days, however, those quills fortify with keratin, making them stiff, sharp, and ready to defend the young Porcupine.

Can You Safely Touch A Porcupine?

Actually, yes, you can safely touch a Porcupine and in some states, they are even allowed as pets. It is a skill that you will need to develop, however, so that you don’t accidentally get quilled by a surprised Porcupine.

When the animal is relaxed, then their quills lay down and you can carefully pet the porcupine. It’s an interesting feeling, quite similar to stroking uncooked spaghetti, but the animals seem to enjoy the attention much like other, less-spiky ones do.

How Do Porcupines Avoid Quilling Themselves?

For the most part, the arrangement of the quills is going to keep them safely away from the Porcupine, but they can actually still quill themselves. What happens is that a detached quill that doesn’t stick in something falls to the ground, and if the Porcupine is moving towards it then the sharp tip can end up sticking in them!

What Happens When Porcupines Quill Themselves By Mistake?

When a Porcupine gets stuck with its own quills, it must pull them out like any other animal would. North American Porcupines, however, have evolved with a natural way to minimize the health risks when they accidentally quill themselves.

Remember how we mentioned that quills don’t have toxins on them? Well, what they DO have is quite the opposite, as their quills have evolved in such a way that they are coated with a greasy, natural antibiotic that helps keep bacteria at bay and reduces the chances that a self-quilling will result in infection. Think of it as ‘Porcupine-penicillin’!

How Do I Remove Quills From My Pet?

If you’ve accidentally gotten stuck with a quill when petting your Porcupine, then don’t panic – there’s a method for removing them efficiently.

You want to pinch the tip of the quill as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out – never at an angle! It will still hurt a little, but this should pull the quill out cleanly and minimize the chance of breakage.

In the video above, Coyote Peterson gets himself quilled (ON PURPOSE!) in order to show you how to remove the quills)

Why Are Porcupine Quills So Hard To Remove?

Porcupine quills have tiny bards and overlapping scales, which are the reason why they stick so well. Think of the barb in a fishhook that gets stuck in a fish’s mouth, but on a micro-scale.

Do All Porcupine Quills Have Barbs?

Yes, each quill on a Porcupine has 700 to 800 tiny barbs that reside on the outer last 4 millimeters of the quill. This helps to ensure that they stick efficiently, although there haven’t been many studies to show us exactly how the barbs and scales work together.

Do Porcupine Quills Dissolve?

No, Porcupine quills aren’t going to simply dissolve. Remember, they are stiff because of keratin, and this is the same material that makes up your fingernails.

If not removed, then it’s going to remain firmly in the skin and quickly become a potential source for infection, or they might gradually work themself deeper into the wound, which is no good.

What Happens If Porcupine Quills Are Not Removed?

When quills are not removed, they can become more dangerous. Since they are barbed, they can easily move deeper into body tissues, rather than working themselves out the way a splinter would. This worsens the puncture wound and infection becomes quite likely.   

How Long Can I Wait To Remove Quills From My Dog?

You don’t want to leave quills in your dog for very long at all if you can avoid it. After 24 hours of a quill being embedded, there is a high chance that the wound will be abscessed and is going to need to be drained.

Vet assistance is recommended, as removal can be quite painful for your dog and there is even a small chance that some cannot be removed – so you definitely want an expert to help.

Does Pet Insurance Generally Cover Porcupine Quills?

Generally, no, but some providers will offer this coverage. You’ll want to check with your pet insurance provider if you have a pet Porcupine living with your dog or cat or if there are Porcupines known to be in your area.

The removal procedures can be complicated and quite expensive, so it’s best to find out directly from the insurance company and make sure that it is listed on the policy which you have purchased.  

What Are Porcupine Quills Made Of?

Porcupine quills are made of a substance that is called keratin. We have keratin, as well, but with humans, it is used to make up our hairs, and fingernails, and is also included in small amounts in the enamel of our teeth.

Let’s take a closer look at quills in general to give you a better mental image.

How Long Are Porcupine Quills?

Porcupine quills, on average, will be approximately 2 to 3 inches in length and are going to cover the outer side of the body. If you flipped over the Porcupine, however, you’d see that they are not present on the underside.

How Do Porcupine Quills Work?

Porcupine quills work as a defense mechanism due to the way the quills are barbed, working in conjunction with the specialized muscles that Porcupines have evolved to use them.

Whenever a Porcupine is worried, they can flex their muscles and their quills go from a ‘laying’ state to standing straight up around them. When a predator gets too close, the sharp tips of the quills pierce their skin, while barbs in the outer 4 millimeters of the quill make it stick and likely to work itself in more deeply.

This is painful for the predator, who will usually become very distracted trying to remove the quills, allowing the Porcupine to make a quick escape. Some predators already know about the quills and may still eat the Porcupine, but it will be a costly meal for them.

How Sharp Are Porcupine Quills?

The tips of a Porcupines quills are extremely sharp. To put it into a proper perspective, the quills are approximately the same diameter as an 18-gauge hypodermic needle, yet they are also capable of piercing the skin and the tissue beneath it even faster than that steel needle would.

It’s an impressive amount of sharpness, indeed, and helps to ensure that predators are definitely going to think twice about trying to eat a Porcupine after they’ve met one for the first time.

Are Porcupine Quills Hollow?

Yes, Porcupine quills are hollow, and it makes good sense that they would evolve this way. The hollow quills are lighter than they would be otherwise, so that they may be quickly lifted in defense and are not so heavy to carry all of the time.

Those hollow quills also make Porcupines more buoyant and most are excellent swimmers!

Are Porcupine Quills Used For Anything By People?

Porcupine quills have been used decoratively, mostly by Native Americans who used to kill Porcupines just to get the quills for sewing into clothing items, making baskets, and other such crafts.

While quills are still used this way, the Porcupine is no longer killed for them. These days, a light tap with a Styrofoam-padded paddle allows someone to collect quills from the Porcupine quite safely and they’ll slowly grow back, making the process better for everyone involved!

Do Porcupines Have Fur?

Yes, Porcupines have fur, which is usually brownish-yellow or even black, and it’s distributed around the body in varying lengths. Porcupines are technically rodents, just very spiky ones, so they are still quite naturally furry.

Just how furry can depend on the temperature, as well, and there are artic Porcupines that look quite fuzzy due to their coarse and thick winter coats.

What Does Porcupine Fur Look Like?

Porcupine fur is a bit on the coarse side, and you’re going to see that most of it is brown, brownish-yellow, or black when the Porcupine is relaxed.

When it’s being defensive, however, you’ll also notice that there is a white strip down its back very much like what you’d see on a Skunk.

That’s what a Porcupine looks like in the summer, however, and in the winter they are going to be quite a bit more shaggy, as their coat will change to accommodate the cooler temperatures to help the Porcupine to better survive the cold of winter.

Is Porcupine Fur Soft?

It would be most accurate to say that ‘some’ of their fur is soft. Porcupines have 3 kinds of fur – the soft underfur, the slightly coarser yellow or white-tipped ‘guard hairs’, and the stiff and hollow quills. They are all made of the same material, but the softness of each is certainly different.

Some predators are well aware of this fact, too.

Coyotes, Bobcats, and Cougars are just a few examples of animals that have evolved a hunting process for snaring Porcupines with relative safety – by flipping them onto their backs to expose their soft-furred and unprotected bellies!

Do Porcupines Have Guard Hair or Just Quills?

Porcupines have both. They will have guard hairs, which will be tipped with yellow or white, as well as their quills. Add in that they also have a coat of darker underfur, and petting a Porcupine becomes quite the unique experience indeed.  

Do Porcupines Have Winter and Summer Fur?

Yes, Porcupines have a thicker coat in winter and the combination of this and their body fat helps to keep them warm in winter. There is a caveat, however, in that this makes the Porcupine look ‘shaggy’, rather than spiky, and their less-threatening appearance put them at more risk in the winter as food becomes scarcer.

Do Porcupines Shed Their Fur?

Just like almost all animals with fur, porcupines do shed their fur. They will also shed their quills.

Most of the porcupine’s shedding will take place during the summer months. They will also be shedding their quills at the same time. They shed the same way as you or me. This means that the dead hair will just fall off of their body and new hairs will start to grow in the hair follicles. Their quills often have to be shaken loose due to how thick the quills are. 

Do Porcupines Have Tails?

Yes, Porcupines have tails, and 15 out of 16 New World Porcupine species have prehensile tails! This is because those Porcupines tend to do their hunting at night while spending the days in tree branches or sleeping in the safety of a nice tree hollow.

It makes good sense – being able to cling to the trees keeps them from quilling themselves if they fall – though their weakness for nibbling on tree buds still leads to Porcupines taking the occasional tumble from a tree branch to the ground.

What Do Porcupine Tails Look Like?

New World Porcupines have fairly thick and muscular tails, which taper out towards their tips. The tails will have a mix of fur and yes – some quills are thrown in for good measure.

If the Porcupine is walking along, then the tail is simply dragged along behind, rather than held aloft as you would see on a cat, but if it’s in a tree then you will likely see it curled to a branch to help keep the Porcupine securely in place.

How Long Are Porcupine Tails?

Porcupine tails are quite long, measuring approximately 8 to 10 inches in length for adult Porcupines. They are also very thick and muscular, rather than long and thin.

Do Porcupine Tails Have Quills?

Yes, while they will not have the density of the body quills, there are certainly quills mixed in with the fur on a Porcupine’s tail. This helps to ensure that predators don’t have the option of avoiding the quills by simply grabbing the Porcupine by the tail.  

What Do Porcupines Use Their Tails For?

Porcupines that are found in North and South America spend quite a lot of time in trees, and so most species have developed prehensile tails as you would see in other tree-dwellers such as opossums.

Their tails are thick and muscular and they serve to help to hold the Porcupine safely in a tree and also to grasp branches for more efficient climbing. Combine this with their long claws and short, stout legs and you have a very efficiently designed climber.

That said, they do still fall out of trees a lot, but their tails definitely help to avoid many a tumble.

Can Porcupines Grab Onto Things With Their Tails?

While they conceivably could pick up a lot of things with their tails, they instead are most likely to use them simply to grasp branches for more efficient climbing and to ‘anchor’ them to trees. They do sometimes use their tails as a warning, however, slapping them into the ground in hopes of scaring a predator away.

This works in some cases, except with biologists, who have learned that they can anticipate this behavior and use it to catch a Porcupine by quickly grabbing the soft underside of its tail!