Woody in the clinic.JPG

Woody, back from the brink

A woman on her early morning walk through the woods came across an abandoned dog lying on his side. He seemed lifeless. It looked as if his collar had been removed and he had been left there to die. But he was breathing, just.

He was a small dog and the woman managed to pick him up and carry him in her arms. At home she placed him next to a bowl of fresh water. He tried to drink but couldn’t. He could hardly stand up.

A vet was urgently needed. On being examined at the veterinary clinic in Alcantarilha, it was confirmed he was suffering from pine processionary moth poisoning. It turned out to be a very serious case. Two experienced vets at the clinic said later it was the worst they had ever seen.

The dying dog was a ginger-haired, cross-breed weighing 6.9 kilos. He looked like a pup but was probably about three years old. Without a microchip, his background remained unknown. He needed a name. Under the circumstances,‘Woody’ seemed a good choice.

The small and inconspicuous adult processionary moth lays large numbers of eggs high in the outer foliage of pine trees during the summer. The resulting horde of caterpillars feed on the pine needles. For communal protection, the caterpillars weave silken nests, light grey in colour and prominently positioned. The growing caterpillars remain in their nest by day, emerging to feed at night.

Processionary caterpillars leave their nest for the last time in February or March and move in unison down the tree. They parade across the ground, in single-file head-to-tail lines a metre or more long, until they find a suitable spot to burrow underground to pupate and turn into another generation of moths.

While on the move in this characteristic way by day, the caterpillars are notoriously dangerous. On being intercepted or disturbed, they release fine, toxic hairs that cause painful skin irritations, rashes and sometimes much worse.

There is no mystery to any of this. Warning stories are published in the local press every year. In a letter to the editor published recently, someone living on a campsite complained he had been “infected by these pests to a horrific degree…. I have suffered intensely for over five weeks.”

Dogs that inquisitively sniff or lick processionary caterpillars usually end up with infections that cause their lips and tongue to greatly swell. It is not uncommon for a dog to lose much of its tongue.

Woody must have gone further than sniffing or licking. He must have eaten one or more caterpillars. This inflamed his stomach and in the clinic he vomited blood. His condition was such that the vets doubted he could survive.

The treatment started with cortisone injections, mouth washing and drugs to line the stomach and stop the vomiting. There followed regular doses of antihistamine, antacid, antibiotic and pain-killing medications. He was on an intravenous saline drip laced with glucose and vitamins 24 hours a day for six days, with monitoring continuing through the weekend.

On the seventh day, having shown almost miraculous improvement, Woody was released from his enclosure in the clinic and allowed to return to the home of his rescuer. She already had three dogs, now she has four.

The newcomer remained on medication and was kept under close observation. His health and vitality steadily improved day by day and eventually surpassed all expectations.

Woody is now eating well and brimming over with energy and enthusiasm. He knows his name and comes when called. He’s lost more than a quarter of his tongue – but his tail doesn’t stop wagging.

By Len Port

Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current
affairs in Portugal on his blog: