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Beware of Grass Awns!

Posted 06.01.16 by Christine Taylor, DVM

What are grass awns?

Grass awn in a dog's gums
Grass awn stuck in a dog’s gums.

One of the most common minor emergencies we see during the summer in the Mid-south are grass awn foreign bodies. These ‘seeds’ or grass awns can become lodged in pet ears, between toes, and under the skin. The most common presentation is a draining tract between the toes. However, grass awns can also cause much more serious health problems when they enter through the mouth or nose of a dog, and migrate through the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract. Grass awns have backward-pointing barbs that prevent retrograde movement, making removal difficult (aka painful), and causing them to migrate deeper with normal motion. These seeds tend to get tangled in long, furry hair coats.

 What should I look for?

Clinical signs will depend on the location of the plant material. The most common location is between the toes, which will cause redness and swelling, or even a draining tract. These patients typically present with a lameness associated with the affected paw. If untreated, an abscess will form that reoccurs despite drainage and antibiotic therapy. If the grass awn passes through the chest or abdomen, clinical signs can be vague, such as decreased performance, exercise intolerance, lethargy, fever and weight loss. Some patients will present with swelling and pain just behind the last rib, which is a common location for abscess formation. These grass seeds can also become lodged in the ear canal, and migrate to the middle or inner ear. This will cause the dog to shake their head excessively, or even cause a head tilt (when a dog holds their head tilted to one side).

 grass awnsHow is this treated?

A thorough physical examination will help in identifying the location of a grass awn. In cases where the grass awn is suspected to have migrated through a body cavity, imaging (such as x-rays or ultrasound) may be required to located the foreign material. The ultimate goal is successful removal of the foreign body, debridement and drainage of infected tissue, and long-term antibiotic therapy to resolve infection. This often involves surgical exploration of the affected tissue to locate and retrieve the foreign material. Pain medication and anti-inflammatory medication may also be prescribed to keep the patient comfortable. In some cases, placement of a drain may be necessary until the infection has improved.

 How can I prevent this from happening to my pet?

In order to prevent grass seeds from penetrating into your dog’s skin, it is important to check their coats and feet for these objects regularly. If your pet is a breed with particularly furry feet or a long, shaggy coat, it can be quite beneficial to have their hair trimmed short during the summer months. By regularly examining your pet, and removing any grass seeds as soon as they are found, you will prevent migration of these grass awns and subsequent infection. It would also be helpful to keep weeds out of your pet’s yard and enclosure, as well as avoiding grassy fields and roadsides.

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