Protect Pets From Grass Awns and Foxtail

Be on the lookout for these common and troublesome weeds

Hands holding ripe ears of wheat
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Late summer is the time to be on alert for various "invaders" from the plant world. Cheatgrass, or grass awns, and similar weeds form barbed seed pods during the growing season. As the plants dry out, the seed pods begin to scatter. This can mean trouble for pets who get the pods caught in their paws, eyes, and nostrils and embedded in their fur and skin. Daily checks and quick removal are the keys to preventing serious problems from developing.

Similar Plants, Many Names

Cheatgrass (or cheatgrass) is also known as downy brome, downy bromegrass, downy chess or June grass or by the scientific name, Bromus tectorum L. It is a common and invasive type of weed found in many parts of North America and particularly in the western United States. A similar group of weeds that pose the same risks to pets is commonly called Foxtail. The term "grass awn" may be used to describe cheatgrass or the seed pod of these types of plants.

Why These Plants Are Dangerous for Pets

The danger cheatgrass poses for pets lies in the "invasiveness" of the dry seed pods found in late summer and early fall. These pods have one-way microscopic barbs that allow the seed to work its way into fur, skin, and mucous membranes, but not work itself back out, much like the one-way movement of porcupine quills. Foxtail weeds shed very small black seeds which also work their way into fur, skin, and tissue.

These annoying and troublesome weeds have been found in the skin, between the toes (very common), and in the eyes, ears, mouth, and vulva—basically, anywhere on the body. They can even work their way through the skin to interior body cavities, such as lungs and abdomen, sometimes causing very serious infections as they migrate through, and get lodged in, body tissues.

It is important not to underestimate the potential seriousness of this common problem.

Preventing Problems With Grass Awns

Daily skin and foot checks plus quick removal will help reduce or eliminate potentially serious and expensive problems. Both cats and dogs are affected by these plants, but cats seem to be better at grooming and removing the seed pods. In addition to removal, the best prevention is to recognize potential problems and keep grass awns away from your pets.

  • Keep weeds out of 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.
  • Have your pet checked by your veterinarian as soon as possible if your pet is excessively sneezing, drooling, shaking their head, scratching ears, whining, or licking at their paw or another body part. A doctor's examination can help prevent further damage.
  • Consider a commercial protection product, such as OutFox® Field Guard, for dogs out in the field, to keep grass awns away from their eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.

    Symptoms of Grass Awn or Foxtail Problems

    Animals with an infected grass awn penetration will show signs typical of an infection: lethargy, loss of appetite, painful swellings, or signs of drainage. Feet are common problem areas. Watch for excessive licking, redness, drainage, or swelling between toes. You may also see a small "puncture hole" between the toes. Some dogs may limp.

    Finding and removing a grass awn before it can embed and infect will save a lot of trouble. These grass seeds will not simply fall out the way they came in the vast majority of cases. This problem tends to continue to worsen over time.

    Please note: This article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of trouble with grass awns or other foreign bodies, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.