If you worry about dangerous creepy crawlies in southern Europe you might jump straight to the old classics – spiders and scorpions – but in reality the one you need to watch out for is a little grey and orange furry caterpillar known as the processionary pine caterpillar, the larval form of the moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa.
And you might think that a dog called Zombie would be the most indestructible beast around, but a few days ago I found my poor canine companion in a terrible state. His entire face was swollen – his eyes were hidden behind his puffy eyelids and he was drooling heavily from the mouth. In fact he was beginning to look a bit like his namesake. But he was yelping and clearly in a great deal of pain. An investigative glance at his favorite sunbathing spot on the way to the car showed me the likely culprit – a writhing mass of processionary pine caterpillars lay right in the middle of where he likes to stretch out. I scooped my poor mutt into the car and rushed him to the vet.
These caterpillars live in pine trees and get their name from their travelling habits – once the caterpillars have matured high up amongst the pine needles, they march head to tail down to the ground in a long line until they find a suitable spot of soft ground to burrow into where they can pupate. In the forest around my home I’ve seen processions of 20 or 30 caterpillars, but these dangerous chains can be made up of hundreds of the 3cm-long creatures. The caterpillars descend in early spring, and once in the ground remain dormant until the summer heat starts to recede, when they emerge as harmless moths. The moths lay eggs in the pine trees and tiny little caterpillars hatch and set about making spider-web-like nests to live in until they have fed enough to start the march all over again.
The vet confirmed my suspicions and showed me Zombie’s inflamed tongue, dotted with white spots where it had made contact with the caterpillar. After giving him injections of cortisone, an anti-inflammatory and antibiotics, she showed me that his now swollen-shut eyes had become cloudy. She explained to me that the hairs of the caterpillar are extremely dangerous to dogs and cats. Contact with the tongue causes necrosis and if left untreated the affected portion of the tongue will eventually die and drop off. Equally unpleasant, leaving the eyes untreated often results in blindness. She prescribed more antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and showed me how to give Zombie eye drops and rinse his tongue with a mouth wash to halt the nasty reaction.
During the caterpillar season it’s quite easy for an animal to pick up hairs on their feet and then transfer them to their mouths or eyes. Unfortunately the caterpillars also smell quite appealing – eating just one can be lethal to a cat and a just few to a dog. This spring’s dry weather and high winds have meant the hairs of the processionary pine caterpillars blowing through the air are causing skin irritation to people and animals alike.
Processionary pine caterpillars are found in more temperate countries all over the world. If you or your pet ever come into contact with them don’t hesitate to seek treatment. With pets especially, the reaction will not lessen over time but get worse, so going straight to the vet is essential. Luckily for us, Zombie should make a full recovery.