If you’re new to the Valley of the Sun, you have probably noticed all of those spiky plants around the desert. Maybe you’ve even had a personal encounter with a few of them on the golf course. Not to worry – with over 51 varieties of cactus in Arizona alone, nearly everyone gets up close and personal with them on occasion.

As humans with opposable thumbs, we can usually pull out our own cactus spines. Our pets, however, are unable to do so and often use their teeth to pull them, but this can create even worse problems.

No problem – we have some clever ways of removing spines from dogs and cats!

How to Remove Cactus Spines

There are many varieties of cactus in Arizona and they all require different methods of removal. Today, we’re discussing Saguaro, Barrel, and the infamous Cholla species.

We urge you not to be fooled by the “smooth” varieties of cactus. They don’t have spines – instead they have a smooth, furry surface that will cause you a lot of pain and be impossible to remove. On humans, we can apply tape or glue and remove the finer spines from our skin. However, pets are very different.

If your dog or cat has come into contact with one of these smooth species, it’s going to require a vet visit – especially if they attempted to eat or chew the cactus. The smooth varieties often have a type of invisible spiny fur that can be incredibly painful to pets and people.

Removing Saguaro Cactus Spines

You can remove long-spined cactus spines, like those from the Saguaro cactus, with tweezers or pliers. Do not attempt to remove them with your fingers as the tiny spikes along the larger spine can embed even further.

Carnegiea gigantea Saguaro cactus plant

Some people believe that if you cut the ends of each quill prior to pulling it out removal is a little smoother. This theory is similar to removing porcupine quills, which are hollow inside. Cutting the end removes the suction that is keeping it in place.

We don’t have any real proof this is true for saguaro spines and it can often lead to more injury, so veterinarians don’t recommend cutting them first.

Removing Barrel Cactus Spines

The straight spines found on cactuses like the saguaro are the easiest to pull free, while barbed cholla spears or hooked spines like those found on barrel cactuses will—not surprisingly—take a little more work.

It’s important that you don’t break the spines when you’re removing them. Attempt to pull them straight out with a pair of pliers or tweezers. Unfortunately, these can be more difficult and painful to remove as their hook-like structure tends to cause more skin damage.

In severe cases, it is safer and easier for a veterinarian to remove these from your pets when they are under anesthesia. This is especially true for cats and for any spines near the face.

Removing Cholla Spines

Cholla (pronounced ˈchȯi-yə) is from the Cylindropuntia family.  This is one of the most common species of cacti in Arizona. There are 35 species of these imposing plants in Arizona.

They’ve earned the nickname, “Jumping cactus” because it feels like they are jumping onto you from feet away. But, the truth is, they are just incredibly sensitive and even a light breeze can persuade them to attach to an arm, leg or paw.

Cholla is one of the most common forms of cacti in Arizona and removal of these spines require special treatment. This cactus operates by latching an entire arm onto you at even the slightest touch.

Cylindropuntia rosea Eze

Always carry a fine-toothed comb wherever you go with your dog in the desert.

A fine-toothed comb is the easiest way to remove a Cholla cacti. Use a comb to quickly flick the bulk of the cactus away from you and your pet. Be certain no one is standing near where you are flicking the pad. This can cause even more problems.

Should your pets get into cholla, they will likely end up with several of these attached to their paw or fur. The first thing they’ll do is try to pull it off of themselves, which leads to spines in the mouth, and that’s where the real danger lies. You will want to use the comb prior to your dog biting at the cactus.  This is due to glochids…

About Glochids

Glochids have backwards pulling barbs that resist removal. While the long, nasty spines stay on the plant, glochids break off readily and work their way into the skin, causing itching and irritation that can, in sensitive individuals, last days, weeks or even months.

These barbs can wind up causing major issues for your pets, including accessing the bloodstream and being transported to the heart or head or any other part of the body. They cannot usually be seen by the naked eye and removing them is nearly impossible. In severe cases, glue or tape can be used to remove about 45% of the offending glochids.


A veterinarian will need to place your pet under anesthesia and do a complete body check for potential hidden spines. While under anesthesia, they will check these areas for hidden spines:

  • your pet’s eyes for corneal abrasions
  • the mouth
  • ears
  • genital area

Many times all parts of the spine cannot be removed and these will eventually form abscesses. Typically, the pet is placed on an anti-inflammatory medication for pain and an antibiotic to help prevent infection.

Easing Pain in Pets After Cactus Encounter

To ease your pets pain, consider treating them to a warm bath in an Epsom salt blend (we love this one that is made up of four types of healing, mineral-rich salts (Epsom Salt, Dead Sea Salt, and Dendritic Salt) as well as Diatomaceous Earth, Rosemary essential oil and Vitamin E to aid in removal. This soak helps soften spines, relax muscles, and offer an aromatherapy benefit that will relax your pets.

We hope you never have to remove cactus from your pets (or yourself), but if you do, these tips will help your pets feel better and recover quickly.