Dangers of Grass Awns for Dogs

Updated November 17, 2021
Wheat Growing On Field

Ears, paws, throats, and even genitals -- veterinarians often find themselves forced to remove grass awns from any nook or cranny on a dog's body. These pesky weeds are strategically shaped to travel into your pet's skin and can cause traumatic damage if not addressed. The best way to protect your dog from the dangers of grass awns is first to understand where they like to hide, then how to safely remove them before they can cause a problem.

What Are Grass Awns?

Awns on grass

A grass awn is the seed of various grass types, including wild grasses, barley, and rye. Grass awns are primarily found in western states, notably California and some Midwestern areas. Though they flourish in the spring, they are dangerous in the hot summer months when their green, soft fronds dry up and turn yellow. This is when they become rigid and sharp and can pose a threat to your pet.

Designed For Destruction

These grass seeds look similar to wheat tops, with spiky fronds and sharp, barbed seeds, like a pointed badminton birdie. Grass awns are designed to travel far in order to spread, so their structure allows them to easily hitch a ride on wild animals, then burrow into the ground and germinate. Unfortunately, this clever design also enables grass awns to unintentionally embed themselves in your pet's fur, then burrow into their skin.

Alternate Names For Grass Awns

Grass Awns

Grass awns are not-so-fondly referred to by several different names, including foxtails, foxtail grass, mean seeds, Downy Brome, bromegrass, needlegrass, spear grass, June grass, wild barley, timothy hay, or cheatgrass.

Dangers of Grass Awn Migration

Grass awns pose a great threat to your dog due to their sharp, barbed seeds. If a grass awn seed becomes stuck in your dog's skin, it can be very difficult to remove. Because of their unique shape, they move further forward into the body and can damage important tissues or organs along the way. Rare but incredibly dangerous examples are embedded awns that move into the body and puncture the lungs or those that enter through a nostril and make their way toward your dog's brain.

Even if they don't collide with vital structures, grass awns can still cause significant trauma, pain, or even death. For example, if a grass awn were to get caught between your dog's toes, it could migrate into the skin, bringing bacteria along with it. This issue could begin as a small swelling or bump, then progress into a larger infection or even severe abscess. And if left untreated, an abscess could be life-threatening. Your ability to prevent grass awn insertion or identify the signs that a grass awn might be embedded and seek veterinary care can save your pet's life.

Dogs at High-Risk for Grass Awns

Two main factors make some dogs more susceptible to grass awns than others.

  • Coat length. Although dogs with short hair are affected by grass awns, these pesky seeds are more easily hidden and overlooked in pets with medium to long hair. If your dog has thicker or longer fur, ensure you're extra vigilant when examining them for grass awns.
  • Environment. Dogs who live in drier areas or in western states where grass awns are particularly prevalent are at a higher risk for picking them up. Moreover, a dog who runs through wild brush or overgrown lawns is likely more suspectible than a dog living in an urban area who walks exclusively on sidewalks.

Common Locations For Grass Awns on Your Dog

Dog's paw with grass awns

Grass awns can get stuck almost anywhere on your dog's body, but they tend to be found more often in these areas:

  • A dog's paws and feet are a regular target as they're at high risk for picking up awns while walking or running on the ground. A dog with a grass awn caught in these areas will likely lick the area obsessively, avoid walking on that limb, and develop red, swollen skin at the location of the embedded awn.
  • The nose and muzzle are also at risk, particularly if your dog tends to sniff and explore wild vegetation areas. Signs a dog has an awn in their nasal cavity include sneezing, a nosebleed, or nasal swelling.
  • Inside the ears are a prime target for awns. These may be hard to see if they move into the ear canal. Symptoms of an awn in the ear is continuous head shaking, pawing at the ears, or balance issues.
  • Dog's can easily swallow grass awns while picking up balls or toys outside; therefore, they can become stuck in the throat. Typical signs that your dog has an awn in their throat include coughing or hacking.
  • Eyes are also susceptible to grass awns. With this sensitive area, the sooner you get to the vet, the better, as the awns can sink further into the eyes and cause permanent damage. Symptoms of an awn in the eye include ocular swelling, excessive blinking, pawing at the eyes, or red and irritated eyes.
  • The lower body, including the armpits, abdomen, groin area, and genitals, are all vulnerable to awns as your dog walks over the grass. A dog with an awn in these areas may have red, swollen skin, and they will likely lick the area constantly. You may also see "draining tracts," which are wounds in the skin where the grass awn entered. These tracts may leak discharge.

What to Do if Your Dog Has a Grass Awn

In some cases, you may be able to remove an awn on your own, but do not attempt this if doing so will make it worse. If the awn is mostly above the surface of the dog's skin, you can use tweezers to gently and slowly pull it out. You'll need to keep your dog calm while doing this to prevent a piece of the awn from breaking off and becoming lodged inside your dog's skin.

After removing the awn, clean the area thoroughly. If your dog is able to lick the area, consider placing a cone on them to prevent any licking, as this can introduce bacteria and lead to infection. You could also cover the area with a breathable sock to prevent debris from entering the awn entrance point.

Monitor the spot for several days. If it becomes red, swollen, or produces discharge, this could indicate an infection. It's important to visit your vet if you notice these symptoms. They can help impede any brewing or full-blown infection with antibiotics and may prescribe pain medications to make your pet more comfortable.

When You Should Not Remove an Awn

If the awn is deeply embedded inside the skin and it's clear you won't be able to pull it out without breaking it, it's time to go to a veterinary clinic. Veterinary hospitals have precise instruments designed to safely probe and remove foreign material like grass awns. Additionally, a grass awn lodged in your pet's eye, nose, ears, or genitals may cause more harm if removed without the appropriate skills or tools. Immediately head to your vet if the grass awn is embedded in one of those particularly sensitive areas. Your pet may have to undergo sedation in order to remove these awns safely.

Preventing Grass Awns From Affecting Your Dog

Hands holding ripe ears of wheat

The best way to prevent your dog from becoming hurt by a grass awn is to avoid areas where the plants grow and dry out. You should also make sure that none of the plants are growing in your yard. Additional preventative measures include the following.

  • Giving your dog a thorough inspection after every walk or hike can help identify awns before they become a problem.
  • If your dog has a thick coat or long hair, use a brush or comb to remove any debris. You may want to consider trimming their fur during heavy foxtail seasons.
  • If your dog regularly spends time in areas with awns, consider getting them a protective head covering called a field guard. This apparel is a head covering made of netting that the dog can see through but prevents awns from getting in.
  • Goggles for dogs is another piece of protective clothing that can keep awns out of your dog's eyes.
  • Lightweight summer vests are also a way to protect your dog's body, as well as dog boots.
  • If you find grass awns in your yard, be careful how you remove them, as you don't want the dried seeds falling onto the ground. Use a bag on your mower to collect loose awns. Try to avoid a string trimmer or clippers that can spread the seeds even more. Make sure you dispose of the trimmings safely and away from your yard.

How to Check Your Dog For Grass Awns

Every time your dog comes inside after a walk or play session, it's important to check them for grass awns. By removing awns before they can embed and migrate, you can avoid the dangerous consequences associated with them.

  1. Begin by checking your dog's paws. Check the underside of each paw, paying careful attention to the area between the paw pads. Then examine the top of the paw between the toes. Grass awns like to hide in the fur between the digits.
  2. Next, move to your dog's face and head. Check their eyes for any squinting or redness. Watch for sneezing and perform a quick check of the ears. Run your hands through the fur behind their ears and take a peek inside each ear. It's impossible to visualize the entire ear canal at home without the appropriate equipment, but you can check for any irritation or discomfort in that area.
  3. Run your hands over your pet's back, sides, legs, and tail. The tail of the grass awn is very rigid and sharp, so you should feel it if it's caught in your dog's fur.
  4. Finally, examine your dog's underside. Run your hands under each armpit, belly, and groin area to check for grass awns.

This daily routine can not only help you prevent grass awns from burrowing into your pet's skin, but it can serve as a great opportunity for obedience training and strengthen the bond you have with your dog.

Beware of Deadly Grass Awns

If you enjoy hiking or walking in fields or on wild trails with your dog, you must be aware of the dangers grass awn pose to your pet. This is especially true if you live in states known for the proliferation of grass awns. If you find an awn in your dog and cannot safely remove it on your own, do not delay in getting your dog to a veterinarian for treatment. This prompt action will prevent your dog from further suffering and potentially death.

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Dangers of Grass Awns for Dogs