Dangers of Grass Awns for Dogs

Hands holding ripe ears of wheat

Spending time outside with your dogs, whether it's going on a hike or playing fetch in a field, is one of the joys of dog ownership. However, you should be aware of a potential danger to your dog that may even be fatal.

What Are Grass Awns?

A grass awn looks similar to the tops of wheat, with spiky fronds and sharp, barbed seeds in a pattern similar to a long, thin pine cone or plumed tail. Grass awns are primarily found in western states, particularly California, and some Midwestern areas as well. Though they flourish in the spring, they are dangerous in the hot summer months when their green, soft fronds dry up and turn yellow and sharp.

Other Names for Grass Awns

Awns are known by several names depending on the area, including:

  • Mean seeds
  • Foxtails
  • Foxtail grass
  • Timothy hay
  • June grass
  • Cheat grass
  • Downy Brome
  • Bromegrass
  • Wild Barley
  • Needlegrass
  • Spear grass
Grass Awns

How Are Grass Awns Dangerous to Dogs?

Grass awns can harm your dogs in several ways due to their sharp, barbed seeds.

Injuries and Grass Awns

If a grass awn seed becomes stuck in your dog, such as in a paw, they can be very difficult to pull out. Left inside, they can lead to infections and pain for your dog. Because of their barbed shape, they move further forward into the body and can damage important organs, such as entering through a nostril or an area of the nose and making its way toward your dog's brain. Other examples are embedded awns that move into the body and puncture organs, lungs and even the spine.

Fatalities and Grass Awns

If a grass awn becomes embedded in your dog and an infection and abscesses develop, your dog is at risk for dying if he receives no treatment. It often can be hard to see the embedded awn, especially if you have a dog with a lot of fur, and your timing in getting your dog to a veterinarian is critical. Once an awn is deep inside your dog, they can be difficult for a veterinarian to find, even with x-rays and ultrasounds, and surgical removal can be difficult.

Ripe golden wheat on white

Where to Find Grass Awns on Your Dog

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 in close proximity to picking up awns from walking or running on the ground. A dog with an awn caught in these areas will probably lick the area obsessively and have trouble walking, as well as red, swollen skin where the awn in embedded.
  • The dog's nose and muzzle are also at risk, especially if he puts his head down while outside to sniff and explore. Signs a dog has an awn in his nose area including sneezing and swelling and in some cases a bloody nose.
  • The ears, particularly 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 constantly shaking the head, pawing at the ears and balance issues.
  • Eyes can have awns stuck in them and the sooner you get the dog to the vet, the better as the awns can sink further into the eyes causing permanent damage. Symptoms of an awn in the eye include swelling, blinking, pawing at the eyes, and red and irritated eyes.
  • The lower body, including the dog's abdomen and genitals and in his "arm pits," are all susceptible to awns as they walk over the plants. A dog with an awn in these areas will have red, swollen skin and they may lick the area constantly, as well as show discomfort when lying down. You may also see "draining tracts" which are wounds in the skin that have a 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 to if you 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 breaking off and stuck inside your dog. Clean the area with and put some antibiotic ointment on it to prevent infection.

When You Should Not Remove an Awn

If the awn is stuck deep inside your dog, and it's clear you won't be able to pull it out without breaking it, it's time to get to a vet. Other signs you should look for are redness, irritation and swelling and pain in the area for your dog when he moves. You should also have a veterinarian remove an awn that is stuck in a sensitive area, such as the nose, eyes, or ears.

Preventing Grass Awns From Affecting Your Dog

The best way to prevent your dog from getting 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. Some other preventative measures include:

  • Giving them a thorough checkup after every walk or hike in grassy areas can help identify them before they get worse.
  • If your dog has a thick coat or long hair, use a brush or comb to remove any debris and you might want to consider trimming it during foxtail season.
  • You should also look at their paws, paw pads, toes and legs to check for awns.
  • If your dog has to go regularly into areas with awns, consider getting him a protective head covering called a field guard. This 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. Using a bag on your mower to collect them can help as well as avoiding 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.

Beware of Deadly Grass Awns

If you enjoy hiking or walking in fields with your dog, be aware of this serious danger to your dogs, especially 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 to prevent your dog from further suffering and potentially death.

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Dangers of Grass Awns for Dogs