When you are strolling through of the South of Europe, enjoying every minute of the pleasant winter weather, scary things are the last on your mind. At least mine was free until I heard: „Beware caterpillars! Especially if you have dogs!”
At the beginning I thought this is one of usual urban legends floating around. How scary a small, fluffy caterpillar can be? Maybe like a bee, at worst... Oh, I was wrong! I was seriously wrong!
So... If you are planning to visit South of Europe from December until May, and especially if you have your dog with you, take this warning seriously – beware caterpillars, certainly in areas where pine trees grow in abundance!
The pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) are found throughout the warmer regions of Southern Europe, the Near East and North Africa. As well as causing much damage to pine forests, they are a major danger to animals and, to a lesser degree, human beings.
If you are travelling through areas of pine trees have a look out for their nests. They are very easy to see. Just look for white cocoons similar to candy floss in the trees... and make a hasty exit.
When hungry, caterpillars leave their cocoon to seek for a new tree on which to feed. They travel nose to tail in a line, hence the name Processional. They are most noticeable from January to mid April and are at their most dangerous in mid/late February.
The caterpillars are often seen in the evenings, walking in procession from tree to tree. Do not touch them!
The very fine hairs on these creatures are poisonous and most dangerous. If they drop onto you or your pet, don't brush them off with your hands because the effect is most unpleasant, causing great irritation, rash and pain. In particular, avoid ingesting the hairs. Dogs are most at risk by sniffing the ground where the caterpillars have marched.
The hairs of the caterpillars are still virulent even when the creatures are dead! So do not hit them with sticks or stomp because hairs flying in the air are still dangerous; the allergic reaction can be caused even by the dust that floats down from an infected tree.
It is recommended to keep Anti Histamine tablets handy as an early treatment. When humans come into contact with these hairs, they can cause reactions ranging from mild inflammation and irritation to severe anaphylactic shock. If the hairs contact your skin a rash soon forms which can be incredibly itchy, painful and lasts for as much as three weeks. The worst problems occur if you make contact with the caterpillar directly and ingest the hairs.
Dogs can get too close to caterpillars and may pick up the hairs onto their paws, these irritate and so they lick them. Once the hairs are on the lips/tongue it will induce serious itching, swelling and possibly vomiting. Look out for the symptoms like excessive drooling and chomping, small white spots in the mouth and on the tongue, and rush to the vet! In some cases partial amputation of the tongue is the only course of action.
If you luckily escaped the caterpillar season and are planning your summer holidays in the South with your pet, ask the vet all about Leishmaniasis (beware sand flies!), Babesiosis and Ehrlichiosis (beware ticks!). August seems to be their favourite month of the year, but the first ticks are already out right now!