Charles Hurty, DVM
Be on the Lookout for Foxtails and Grass Awns
Summer is the time of year to be on the lookout for foxtails and other grass-like plants that can cause problems for our canine companions. This summer we have seen several patients at Grove Veterinary Clinic affected by foxtails. Foxtails actually go by many names; they are typically referred to as Cheat grass, grass awns, June grass, or Downy Brome. These tiny hitchhikers or invaders can cause a lot of problems for our pets.
Foxtails are grass-like weeds that scatter seed pods during warm dry weather conditions. These seed pods, which are often times smaller than a grain of rice, have microscopic barbs or hooks that will allow the thin pod to stick to a person’s clothing or to a dog or cat’s fur. The pods become problematic as they make their way through the animal’s fur to the skin, where they can then pierce the animal’s skin or mucus membranes. Problems arise when the tiny barbs on the pods penetrate the skin and allow the seed pod to burrow and migrate to a location below the skin. This can quickly result in pain and infection for a dog or a cat. The barbs on the pods facilitate further migration of the pod into an animal’s tissues and prevent easy removal of the pod once it has penetrated the skin – sort of like a fish hook.
The clinical signs of foxtail migration in a dog vary and depend on the location of seedpod’s point of penetration. Typically we find that these pods get caught between the toes of dogs. The first clinical sign is pain. Usually a raised, red to purple skin lesion is noted. This lesion will rupture and a blood-tinged purulent discharge results. This becomes a draining tract of infection and is quite painful to the patient. Often these dogs will excessively lick or chew the affected paw(s), demonstrate a limp, and sometimes even develop a fever from the infection. Other parts of the body that are commonly affected include the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, muzzle, or vulva. When the nostrils are affected, dogs will excessively and violently sneeze as the foreign body creates inflammation, swelling, discharge, and pain. Essentially any part of the body can be affected. Sometimes these barbed seeds will migrate to interior body cavities or to internal organs, such as the lungs or liver. These tiny seeds can cause some major problems.
These grass awns problems can be prevented by performing a daily skin and paw check on your dog. If your dog has been playing or running in weeds or grassy fields, this type of inspection is especially important. During the drier seasons, you may even consider clipping the fur between your dog’s toes and paw pads to a shorter length to make it easier to find potential hitchhiking seed pods. In order to prevent exposure to these weeds during the drier months, you may want to avoid weed-rich areas and opt for other environments to exercise your dog. Additionally, try to remove weeds from your own yard and discourage your canine companion from chewing on weeds and grasses that may shed these Cheat grass seeds.
If you think your dog is affected by a grass awn or foxtail it is best to seek out the advice and care of your veterinarian. These little invaders can be quite a problem and removing them can be painful and challenging. Often sedation or even general anesthesia is needed to properly treat a patient affected by these plants. Remember quick attention is better than waiting, as the seed pods can migrate to other deeper parts of the body, resulting in more pain, infection, and trauma.