How to Protect Your Dog From Foxtails and Cheatgrass

Foxtail Sunset

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You might have heard that grass awns are potentially dangerous to dogs, but do you know why they are harmful? The seed pods from tall grasses like foxtail and cheatgrass can actually attach to a dog and become embedded in the skin. Left untreated, these foreign bodies can migrate through the body and cause serious infections. You can help protect your dog from foxtails, cheatgrass, and other harmful grass awns by learning how to identify potentially dangerous grasses. The sooner you recognize the signs of grass awn problems in your dog, the easier you can help your dog.

What Are Grass Awns?

Grass awns are the seed pods of certain tall grasses that grow as invasive weeds. These grasses can be found throughout North America and are especially prevalent in the Western United States. Common examples of these weeds include foxtail and cheatgrass.

These weedy grasses form seed pods that dry out and scatter in the summer. Many of these seed pods have tiny barbs in them that allow them to easily attach to animals and objects. This is nature's way of spreading the grass seeds for propagation.

When a dog moves through tall grasses, seed pods can easily attach to the dog. The tiny barbs ensure that the grass awn moves in one direction, allowing it to embed into the skin and migrate deeper and deeper into the tissues as a foreign body.

Grass awns are sometimes called "mean seeds" because of the harm they can do to dogs. The risk is highest during the summer when the seed pods are dry and loosens from the grass.

Why Are Grass Awns Dangerous to Dogs?

Grass awns from weeds like cheatgrass and foxtail first become attached to a dog's coat while running or walking through these tall grasses. The height of many dogs lines up well with the location of the seed pods on the grasses, and contact with the grass allows the sharp, lightweight grass awns to stick to the dog. Movement from the dog allows the grass awn to pierce the dog's skin, becoming embedded due to the barbs. Further motion enables the grass awn to migrate. Foxtail seeds can also separate from the pod and become embedded.

Grass awns may get caught in a dog's paws, nostrils, face, and ears. They may also become embedded in the body. Grass awns have been known to migrate through the body wall and migrate to the chest and abdominal cavities.

When a grass awn is embedded, the body responds with inflammation. Cells begin to wall off the area to contain a potential infection, forming an abscess. Many dogs develop a lump where the grass awn is located. Embedded grass awns can lead to serious infections and other complications.

Signs of Foxtail or Cheatgrass Problems in Dogs

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swelling or lump
  • Puncture hole
  • Discharge or bleeding
  • Licking, chewing, or pawing at the affected area
  • Limping (if legs/paws affected)
  • Shaking head (if ears affected)

If you notice these or any other signs of illness in your dog, contact your veterinarian right away. Let your vet know if your dog has been around tall grasses. The sooner a grass awn is found, the easier it is to treat. Do not wait for the problem to resolve on its own. Grass awns are very unlikely to fall out on their own and usually get worse over time.

Treatment for Grass Awn Problems

Your veterinarian will closely examine your dog, especially the area where the grass awn is embedded (if it can be located). In many cases, the vet will not know if the problem has been caused by a foreign body until further diagnostics are done.

If your dog is having respiratory issues, digestive problems, or other general signs of illness but a foreign body cannot be found on the exam, then X-rays may be needed. Blood and urine may be tested to see if there is an impact on organ function or blood cells. An ultrasound may also be needed to visualize the inside of the body.

Your dog may need to be sedated if the grass awn is in an area like the mouth or nose, or if the affected area is very painful. Your vet may attempt to remove the grass awn, if possible, while your dog is still under sedation. In some cases, the abscess can be opened and the foreign body removed.

In other cases, surgery will be needed to remove the grass awn and your dog will be placed under general anesthesia. Exploratory surgery may be recommended if diagnostic tests indicate a problem in the chest, abdomen, or deep within the tissues of the body.

If the grass awn is suspected to be in the nasal cavity, the vet may need to remove it via rhinoscopy. This involves putting a tube with a tiny camera into the nose and retrieving it with a small tool that is passed through the tube.

How to Protect Your Dog from Foxtails and Cheatgrass

If your dog has been in an area with tall grasses, be sure to check his body for grass awns, wounds, and swollen areas. Look at the paws closely, checking the tops and bottoms of the feet and between the toes. Check the ears and mouth. Remove any foreign objects from your dog and keep a close eye on him for the next few days.

  • Remove weeds from your pet's yard and enclosure.
  • Keep pets out of dry grassy fields and roadsides.
  • Keep your pet's coat clean and well-groomed. This will help reduce grass seed accumulation and facilitate daily inspections.
  • Inspect your pet daily for hair mats (where grass awns like to hide), and examine the area between their toes.
  • Clip the hair between paw pads in dogs to reduce the potential for picking up grass awns.
  • Consider a commercial protection product, such as OutFox Field Guard, for dogs out in the field in order to keep grass awns away from their eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.