***If you have a dog, know someone with a dog, have been to Europe or plan on it, I’m urging you to read this post both for your own safety and the safety of any dogs in your life. Thank you. ***
Something incredibly scary happened the other day while Dagny and I were out on our walk. We encountered some strange caterpillars that I’ve now found out are extremely dangerous to dogs. They aren’t common in the US and at the time I didn’t know any better, but now I do and I’m telling you.
Think these are some weird things we found in the forest? Nope! They were walking across a sidewalk here in a residential area and could have killed Dagny… and the issue isn’t from ingesting them. It’s much freakier than that. If you or anyone you know has a dog and either lives in Europe or may visit (and possibly some areas of the US), please read on for my PSA (public service announcement). A dog’s life could depend on it.
PSA: Dangers of pine processionary caterpillars in France
NOTE: Dagny is now OK and I can type this without feeling like I want to throw up from the stress.
As a kid growing up, I remember learning about caterpillars in school and how the fuzzy little things would one day turn into a butterfly or maybe a moth depending on the species. We’d learn about their life cycle and how they’d inch along and basically do no harm. I remember petting them. Never had I ever seen or heard about a species of caterpillar that is native to Western Europe called pine processionary caterpillars, a type of caterpillar that makes its nest in regular old pine trees. While all is well now, we had a very frightening run-in with hundreds of them last week and I want you to know about it.
Dagny and I walk every morning and pretty much take the same route. One day last week, the grassy area of a nearby apartment building that we walk through to go to the park caught my eye. I thought there were some branches on the sidewalk but then I realized these “branches” were moving. I jumped back thinking the long thing I saw was a snake but upon further inspection, I realized what I was seeing was a giant chain of caterpillars. Never having seen anything like it, I bent down and snapped a picture of this giant chain of caterpillars spanning at least 20 feet that was trying to cross the road, all nose to tail. I then noticed more chains weaving in and out of the grass. I even made a joke to myself about caterpillars going on vacation. The chains were weaving around from the street, up the curb, down the sidewalk and into the grass over to the trees. While I was snapping my pic, Dagny came over to investigate, stepped on the caterpillars (I know this because one balled up to protect itself) and sniffed them. She realized they weren’t food and walked away. I took my pics in a total of 20 seconds max, and we continued on our way to the park. I posted the above pic on Instagram while walking. (You can follow me in Instagram here.)
Shortly thereafter, a woman commented on my photo saying to be careful with my dog and that the caterpillars are dangerous.
I assumed she meant they were dangerous if ingested — some insects and critters can be — and I didn’t think much of it because I know Dagny isn’t one to eat random worms or bugs so I wasn’t worried. She goes for pieces of baguette or cookies that kids drop from their strollers. Not bugs.
When we got home, I googled caterpillars and dogs out of curiosity and my Google search results lit up like a Christmas tree with people’s horror stories (mostly in Spain & Portugal) of their dogs DYING after coming into contact with these caterpillars. Officially called Thaumatopoea pityocampa, the innocuous-looking caterpillars most likely to be out and about from February to July and fall from white wool-like nests hanging in the pine trees.
They’re not good for the trees either and in Spain, these pests rank second as the most destructive pine tree plague, after forest fires. Yikes!
The scary part is that the hairs are the issue.
Just how dangerous are pine processionary caterpillars to dogs? Very.
Of course eating certain bugs can make you sick, but in the case of these pine processionary caterpillars, their little hairs are the issue and a dog doesn’t have to eat the actual caterpillar to become extremely ill or die. Just a single lick or prick from one of these venomous hairs can induce anaphylactic shock in small dogs and humans, extreme skin irritation and possibly death. It’s also common that if the dog licks the caterpillar or takes it in his mouth, that the tongue tissue will start to become necrotic, and if the dog lives, his tongue will have to be amputated.
Here’s what a Portuguese veterinary hospital had to say about these poisonous pests:
“Each hair is a sealed ampoule containing taumatopein. The hairs in turn end in a sharp point that can bury into their victims like ‘harpoons.’ The hair then bursts, liberating the toxin.”
What are the signs? They continue, “Swelling of the lips, muzzle and face and abundant drooling are the first signs. These can be followed by itching around the head, restlessness and constant rubbing of the muzzle and face on the ground. When contact with the tongue happens, there is serious inflammation and sloughing of the affected parts. As time goes by large sections of the tongue show ‘gangrene’ and eventually drop off.”
Keep in mind these are pests that make their nests on regular pine trees. Not some rare type of tree that you’d never encounter.
Pine trees are so common and I can’t believe the pine processionary caterpillars, so normal looking, are so dangerous.
What else is extremely scary about this?
The wind. A gust of wind can blow the hairs into your dog’s fur (or in contact with a human’s skin) — Dagny is very hairy — and prick the dog’s skin long after you’ve left the site of the caterpillars. The prick causes irritation leading the dog to lick at the area and ingest more toxins. Normally reactions happen very quickly but if a caterpillar hair is lurking in the dog’s fur, who knows when the dog will lick it. Even long after the caterpillars are gone, tons of these toxic hairs are left in the nests so that when the wind blows or an exterminator comes, they can be transported and potentially irritate skin or mucous membranes even when people or animals have not directly come into contact with the caterpillars. I’m getting the heeby jeebies just typing this.
A call to the vet
So back to the story. At this point, Dagny was acting totally fine but I was starting to get really nervous about everything I read online. In the time between our walk and me realizing the caterpillars were a danger, she had been all around the house and even in our bed, possibly leaving caterpillar hairs all around. Remember, I know she stepped on one and there were hundreds in the various caterpillar chains. Frantically, I asked Tom to call the vet while I put all our linens and blankets she had been on in the washer and hurriedly vacuumed the whole house in case she brought in a caterpillar hair (or if I did on my shoe).
So now a few hours had passed since the walk but the vet was concerned and said what she sees most commonly is a dog losing its tongue because of these caterpillars. Normally it’s best to thoroughly rinse (but don’t rub, to avoid bursting any of the hairs) the dog’s fur and mouth right after coming into contact with the pests but I didn’t know at the time. ;-( The vet said to put on gloves and wash Dagny’s mouth and paws really well just in case. We did that, as I blamed myself for not knowing about these bastards, and as we were drying her, Tom found a tuft of caterpillar hair in her tail. We lobbed off a chunk of tail hair not taking any chances and put the toxic hairs in a bag, hazmat style to dispose of later.
After we dried her off, we brought her to see the vet for an exam. Better safe than sorry. The vet said her mouth looked OK for now but that sometimes the reaction is delayed depending on when she came in contact with the hairs (if they were on her fur and she licked it after the walk or if one pricked her when she sniffed it). She asked me if I saw Dagny lick the caterpillar and I said no but I couldn’t be sure because I did look away to take the picture. The vet took preventive measures just in case and gave Dagny cortisone and a dose for me to give her the day after. She’s still showing no signs of being affected by these horrid creatures at all and I’m so grateful we narrowly escaped what could have been a nightmare. We avoid the sidewalk where I spotted the caterpillars and I’m so thankful to lionath38 on Instagram for alerting me.
Anyone who truly knows me is fully aware that my dog is my life and if anything happened to her I’d never forgive myself. Never.
I asked Tom if he knew about the dangers of pine processionary caterpillars in France and if French people learn about them in school. He said he learned that caterpillars in general can cause painful skin reactions like rashes (kind of like a poison ivy type of reaction and his mom had a severe reaction growing up after one fell on her bare shoulder) but didn’t know anything specific about these processionary ones in pine trees.
We’re making a formal complaint with the mayor’s office this week and hoping they exterminate the nests or at least safely get rid of the caterpillars that are in our neighborhood. Or at the very least put up a sign. As I said, this was not in the forest or park where you’d expect to find all kinds of creepy crawlies but in a residential neighborhood on the sidewalk next to an apartment building (that has pine trees planted near the parking lot). I also told all the dog owners I know in the neighborhood to avoid that area and now I’m telling you.
Here’s Dagny snooping around in the yard after her encounter with the processional caterpillars:
So please, keep an eye out for pine processionary caterpillars in France and just keep your dog away from all caterpillars wherever you live to be safe. Tell everyone you know whether they’re in Europe or not. I wish I had known about these pine processionary caterpillars ahead of time, so please spread the word to prevent a dog (or human) from becoming sick or worse.