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 inflammation and possibly infection.

You can help protect your dog from foxtails, cheatgrass, and other harmful grass awns by learning how to identify these potentially dangerous grasses. The sooner you recognize the signs of grass awn problems in your dog, the easier you can help your dog and prevent more serious injury.

What Are Grass Awns?

Grass Awn

A grass awn is the seed pod of certain tall grasses that grow as invasive weeds, including common examples like foxtail and cheatgrass. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds, and these grasses can be found throughout North America especially in the Western United States.

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 its body. The tiny barbs ensure that the grass awn moves in one direction, allowing it to potentially 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 cause to dogs. The risk is highest during the summer when the seed pods are dry and loosen easily 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 potentially 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 most commonly get caught in a dog's paws, skin, nostrils, ears, and eyes. They may also become embedded deeper in the body. Grass awns have been known to migrate through the body wall and into 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 the foreign object and avoid a potential infection, forming an abscess. Many dogs develop a painful, swollen 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

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen and/or painful 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 any areas that are swollen, painful, or appear to have a puncture wound. In many cases, the vet will not know if the problem has been caused by a foreign body like a grass awn until further diagnostics are done.

If your dog is having respiratory issues, digestive problems, or other general signs of illness, imaging such as x-rays and/or an ultrasound may be warranted. Blood and urine may also be tested to look for evidence of infection, organ dysfunction, and/or blood cell abnormalities.

Your dog may need to be sedated if the grass awn is in a sensitive area like the mouth, nose, eye, or ear, or if the affected area is very painful. If possible, your vet may try to remove the grass awn while your dog is still under sedation. If the grass awn is suspected to be in the nasal cavity, the vet may recommend a referral for 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. In many cases, the abscess can be opened, the foreign body removed, and the area flushed out and cleaned.

In other cases, more invasive 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. This can be a much more complicated procedure and your vet may recommend referral to a specialist who can do additional imaging as well as provide more intensive care post-operatively.

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. Brush out your dog's coat thoroughly after any off-leash walks in areas that may have tall grasses and remove any foreign objects from your dog's coat. 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 may mean clipping fur short to 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 and consider putting booties on your dog during walks in high risk areas.
  • 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.