What is Cheat Grass and Why is it Such a Problem?
Cheat grass is an annual, invasive grass that comes back year after year. Cheat grass is sometimes also referred to as foxtails, mean seeds, June grass among others. Regardless of what you call it or what the actual species of grass is, they all have awns which can be problematic for dogs and cats. The awn is the bristle-like appendage that grows from the flower of many grasses. The purpose of awn spikes is to stick and hold onto surfaces in order to spread their seeds to distant locations. Unfortunately, the sharp nature of these spikes can result in penetration through the skin or become embedded in nearly any location. Commonly, they become lodged in the nose, eyes, ears, and between the toes of dogs. Other routes of exposure may include inhalation or swallowing. Grass awns become problematic when they go unrecognized or are not removed.
The symptoms depend largely on the part of the body that is affected. For a grass awn in the nose, usually sneezing or pawing at the face/ excessive rubbing is the first sign noted. This can progress to nasal discharge. Dogs with awns stuck in their ears often shake their heads. One of the most common places grass awns get stuck is in between the toes of dogs. You may or may not see a puncture hole where the seed entered. Often, these dogs lick their feet or limp. Occasionally, you may see a red swelling between the toes or paw pads. Other signs of infection may indicate a problematic grass awn. Non-specific signs such as lethargy, decreases appetite, painful swellings, redness, or lameness may be observed.
Should You Remove Grass Awns at Home?
Awns that are attached to the coat or hair can be removed by hand or brushed out. Removal of awns that are embedded is trickier. These awns often have barbs, or hooks, anchoring them in tissue and favoring forward migration. Attempts to pull seeds out may results in breakage leaving pieces in tissue. Subsequently, inflammation and infection may result. The aggressive nature of these awns can even result in migration to the lungs, brain, spinal cord, abdominal cavity, almost anywhere really. They can become a very serious problem. Early recognition and examination are the best way to prevent further damage by the grass awn. Often it is necessary to sedate the patient in order to remove the grass awn in its entirety.
Avoiding contact with problematic grasses is the best way to prevent grass awn issues. However, this is nearly impossible. Dry, grassy fields should be avoided if possible. Dogs with medium/long hair should have the hair between the toes and paw pads clipped short. It may be beneficial to have the underside of your dog groomed short to avoid picking up seeds. Additionally, dogs with hairy ears should have the hair trimmed short. If you have working dogs or your dog spends a lot of time running through tall grasses, you may want to purchase a vest. It is important as an owner to take some time to look over your dog especially after he or she has been out in grassy fields. Don’t forget to check in between their toes! Dog boots may be beneficial as well.
It is important not to underestimate the potential seriousness of grass awns.