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Virginia residents warned to stay away from hairy, venomous caterpillars

The white hickory tussock moth caterpillar from Canada has somehow made its way to central Pennsylvania, and if you see one, don't touch
Prickly poisonous caterpillars turn up in new places 01:55

Officials in Virginia are warning residents to stay away from a poisonous creature that has been spotted in the state. The Virginia Department of Forestry's health team said this week they have received reports about what is known as the puss caterpillar, seen in eastern Virginia counties.

Officials warn the caterpillar may look cute and harmless. It is not.

"#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!" the forestry department said on Facebook, posting a photo of the furry critter.  

"The 'hairs' of this caterpillar are actually venomous spines that cause a painful reaction if touched."

#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar! VDOF's forest health team has received reports of the puss caterpillar in...

Posted by Virginia Department of Forestry on Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The puss caterpillar, which is the larva of the southern flannel moth, is the most venomous caterpillar in the U.S. and even a simple brush with the insect can cause "excruciating pain," according to National Geographic. The caterpillars' fur hides toxic spines that stick to your skin.

"The sting produces an immediate intense burning pain followed the appearance of a red grid-like pattern on the skin that matches the pattern of the venomous spines on the caterpillar," according to the University of Florida's entomology and nematology department.

Making contact with the caterpillar could cause a rash, vomiting, fever, muscle cramps, swollen glands and shock, according to the University of Michigan Health System.

The puss caterpillar, which is the larva of the southern flannel moth, eats oak and elm leaves, and can be found in parks or near buildings, officials said. It is primarily found in the South.

"If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations— there are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle," the department said.

In 2017, a Florida woman's 5-year-old son accidentally stepped on one as he played outside. Her Facebook post about the ordeal went viral.

Pets are also vulnerable. Last year, an 83-pound Bouvier Terrier-mix named Beethoven rolled his face on top of a puss caterpillar. The dog's owner told CBS affiliate WPEC-TV the venom traveled through part of his face, causing a blistered, puffy red eye that needed immediate veterinary attention.

Dr. Dale Porcher with the Shores Animal Clinic told the station: "With a wasp or bee usually the pain in an hour has gone away. Yet with these, the pain can endure for eight to 12 hours."

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