Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Grass awns, grass spikes, foxtail. Your dogs’ nightmare!
Summer is probably one of the most anticipated seasons. Everyone is getting ready for their dream vacation. Far trips to exotic places. Countless sunbathes, followed by captivating coolness in not too hot water reservoirs. Long days and short nights encourage to spend time outdoors. Distant hiking, meeting friends, garden barbecues … Who doesn’t love summer with all its attractive pleasures? However, when we enjoy each summer day so much, we cannot forget about the dangers that await our pets …
In this article, I would like to draw attention to a problem that in summer becomes a big nightmare for dogs. What is going on? For inconspicuous grass awns and tall grasses (Poaceae), which after the winter appear in huge quantities and can be very sharp. It is not difficult for people to cut their skin with them — just as easily a dog can get wounds on his stomach. These ubiquitous plants cover almost every available patch of our planet (they constitute about 25–45% of the entire vegetation of the world) and are the main component of steppe, meadow and pasture vegetation. Their commonness means that hardly anyone pays attention to them. This plant family has about 11,000 species. It is worth mentioning among others of the type of barley (Hordeum), whose husks are characterized by a long bone and edges overgrown with hooked hairs or of the type Stipa, whose husks, in turn, have a very long, often sprained bone. It is this type of grass that I have been seen practically everywhere, on every patch of urban greenery, during walks with my dog.
Barley awns with a close-up on individual spikes
What’s the problem?
It is assumed that grass awns and a similar type of plant material get into the mouth or nose of the dog when it sniffs intensively during tracking. Then they can travel through the respiratory or digestive system or other tissues. Also, awns of grass adapted to be spread by animals in an extremely easy way attach to their fur and due to mechanical set in motion (during dog’s movement, while scratching, dusting off, sparking, rubbing or as a result of wind blowing on hair) they usually migrate in close to the skin (movement in one direction makes it easier for them to shape), and the sharp ends of the chaff make it easily stick into the skin, from where due to the movements of individual body parts they can migrate further into the part of the body in which it is located, posing a serious threat health and even dog life! In an extreme case, the awns can also enter the body’s bloodstream, which may cause the foreign body to enter the heart and result in the animal’s death.
The grass awn has a pointed, pointed moustache that prevents backing. This makes the physiological mechanisms of removing foreign bodies by the body ineffective, and the spike can migrate deep into the tissues during the animal’s movements.
grass awns entangled in fur
grass awns located close to the skin
Long-haired dogs, village dogs, working dogs and dogs kept outdoors are particularly at risk. Grass awns can attach to almost any hairy place on the dog’s body, but nevertheless the most vulnerable to contact with awns are paws (spaces between paws and fingers), ears (inner side — ear canal), armpits, stomach, nose (nostrils), eyes, snout and intimate surroundings. The effect is not only the discomfort that the pet feels, but also bleeding, infection, and if swallowed bony awns — swelling and infection of the throat.
The main problem is that the wound of spiked awns in the body can heal quickly, and the presence of a foreign body inside the body may not make itself felt for a long time. When clinical symptoms of any health problems occur, the owner usually does not know that the reason lies in the spiked grass … The diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that the grass seeds are organic matter and therefore cannot be visualized using an X-ray or ultrasound examination. Even if the cause of the problem is seen in the spikelet embedded in the body, taking an X-ray or ultrasound examination is pointless, because it will not show the spikelet itself and its location will remain a mystery to the doctor.
Migration of spikelets to the abdomen or chest may be potentially fatal to the dog. Awns can lead to lameness. In turn, spikelets embedded in the eye area can cause irritation and damage to the eyeball and surrounding structures, including blindness. Ears that get into the ear canal can cause irritation, inflammation, and can even cause the eardrum to rupture and hearing loss. Spikelets embedded in the nostrils can migrate to the turbinates, causing severe stress, and in rare cases can also reach the brain. As you can see the consequences of getting a spikelet deep into the dog’s body can be very serious. Damage resulting from this title may be irreversible, and the healing process itself can be lengthy and very expensive.
A barley spike with a single spikelet and an approximate structure of the hull bone structure. The mechanism of sticking the grass awns to the skin.
Most occurring problems
Statistically, dog paws are most often the victims of grass awns. Grass awns attached to the fur relatively quickly reach the very pads, where they easily penetrate the thin skin between the fingers and begin to delve deeply into very sensitive tissues, causing huge pain, discomfort, infection and sudden lameness.
An important role from the moment the problem arises to the correct diagnosis is played by the vigilance of the owner and time because the longer the grass awns remain unnoticed and such a condition is left untreated, the more likely it will migrate deeper and in time may even reach the chest. There are many registered cases in which individual grass awns travelled from the toes to the chest and ended their journey placing themselves in the heart!
If the owner is lucky, the timely noticed awns are enough only to remove it from the dog’s fur or gently remove it from the skin, if it has already managed to partially stick it. The tiny stab wound only requires disinfection and should heal itself within a few days. Spikelets and grass seeds that have stuck completely into the dog’s paw require the help of a veterinarian who, to pull out the intruder, usually needs to seduce the dog, and then after locating his position (we hope he succeeds), he will attempt to remove it from your quadruped. The technique of removing a spikelet usually involves numerous (“blind”) attempts to track it through the entrance opening using specially designed long tweezers.
The second, most common place where grass spikes cause problems in dogs is the ear canal. Very often, spikelets get into the ear canal imperceptibly and by the time the dog comes to the vet’s, they usually reach enough depth that they can rest on the delicate eardrum. Naturally, the dog tries to get rid of it nervously by scratching the sick ear and shaking the head, and even rubbing the head from the side of the sick ear against various objects. Such procedures usually do not give the expected result, on the contrary, they further aggravate the problem, as tissue irritation, micro-injuries and inflammation develop quickly. In addition, it causes the awns to move deep into the ear. Touch, not to mention carrying out an otoscope test, can be so painful that diagnostics will not be possible without sedation. Foreign matter stuck in the ear needs to be removed. A physician can easily remove a shallow and shallow position with the same long tweezers described above. For deeper spikelets, the veterinarian can use an endoscope that will allow him to visualize the spikelet fully and remove it safely. At the same time, the doctor can assess the condition of individual structures and make sure that they have not been damaged.
If a dog has an awn stuck in its nasal cavity, sneezing is usually among the first symptoms. Next is Head whisk and paw rub rubbing. Similar behaviour can be observed with otitis, but in the case of a foreign body, the problem occurs suddenly and is accompanied by a large, difficult to control nervousness of the dog.
If the foreign body is small, everything can run more calmer, but the mechanism remains the same: the foreign body slowly moves inside the ear. At this stage, there is redness, swelling, sometimes a purulent discharge of yellowish or greenish colour, and oedema of the auricle.
If the foreign body is not removed for a long time, there is a danger that otitis externa will spread to the inner ear. The appearance of imbalances, aggression when trying to touch the ear, twitching in a circle, always in the same direction indicates that the ebenoid has been damaged. We are already dealing with damage to the nervous system and if the dog does not receive immediate veterinary help, its condition may deteriorate rapidly.
Considering the threats mentioned above, you must first of all regularly check your dog’s ears to remove any foreign body with your fingers without any problem. However, if the dog shows that something is bothering him in the ear, and during the inspection, we do not find anything suspicious, you need to immediately after noticing the first symptoms suggesting the presence of a foreign body in the ear hang the dog to the vet. Do not attempt to hatch awns, because awns will most likely separate and the smaller the part, the easier it will get deep into your ear. The time the dog is at the vet’s office is very important.
As I wrote above, grass awns can also get deep into the body through other body openings and it is not uncommon for them to be found in the nose, under the eyelids or in the vulva. In the most extreme cases, awns can reach the spine, where they rest on the vertebral bones and cause degeneration of the spine or discs. In these cases, the first clinical manifestation of the problems is often manifested by unstable walking of the hind legs. There are also cases of migration of awns to the chest and settling in heart tissues.
Prevention is always better than treatment. Therefore, owners of all dogs exposed to grass awns should pay special attention to their pupils during the flowering and maturation of grass seeds (summer / early autumn). The dog’s fur should be carefully inspected after each walk. Particular attention should be paid to paw pads, abdomen, groin, ears, eyes, lumps and anal and genital area. The fur should be regularly combed and brushed. In places particularly at risk of sticking to grass clumps, you can think about shortening the coat, possibly pinning it, or other protection (protective footwear, ear protection net), which should facilitate care.