Being an animal owner means that you constantly need to keep an eye out for dangers. Spring presents more that its fair share, and a common hazard is the lowly grass seed. Every year, animals present to their vet with problems caused by them, and spring and summer’s warm and wetter conditions are perfect for grass-growing, and consequently an abundance of grass seeds.
The grass seed - or awn - is a bristly growth on the flower of many types of widely growing grasses. They have a sharp tip, and then fan out into a wedge – their purpose being to secure themselves to surfaces so that they can spread their seeds to other areas - but the sharp tips are also perfect for piercing through skin. Once lodged in the skin the fanned awn allows the seed to only move forward, similar to the tip of a fish hook.
How do dogs sustain injuries?
Grass seeds are potentially dangerous no matter how a dog or cat comes into contact with them. They can be inhaled, swallowed, get lodged in the ears, or imbedded in the coat or skin. If they are not promptly removed they can cause serious problems.
The risk is usually influenced by where animals live, and a working dog or one that lives on a farm, is far more likely to come into contact with them than a city dog that is walked on a lead. In spite of this, an overgrown urban area or a park with long grass, can pose a risk to city animals. When exploring, dogs and cats tend to lead with their noses, therefore it’s not surprising that this is common point of entry for grass seeds.
Ingestion and inhalation
Animals can inhale grass seeds, especially when hunting or running through long grass.While sneezing and nasal discharge will result from some intra-nasal grass seeds, they are commonly discovered for the first time when an infection they’ve caused is in fairly advanced stages. Less commonly the grass seeds can find their way into the airways, which may lead to pneumonia or a chest infection without there having been any previous warning signs.
Ingestion is another way of entry, and it can occur when an animal is chewing or licking its coat, or when eating food directly from the ground. Excessive licking may occur if a grass seed is attached to the gums, tongue or mouth. A seed in the back of the throat may cause an animal to cough, gag, retch and have difficulty eating and swallowing.
Grass seeds that are ingested are usually digested, but they can pierce through the digestive tract before digestion and find their way into the surrounding tissues and organs. These seeds can go anywhere in the body, and the symptoms of damage and infection may be the only indicators of where they’ve ended up.
Grass seeds in ears can cause significant irritation and infection, and can reach the middle ear by piercing through the eardrum. A grass seed in the middle ear is very serious and can cause considerable pain. Grass seeds in the ear usually cause dogs to shake their head as well as scratching and rubbing the ear on the floor, or a tilted head. Excessive shaking of the head can cause damage to the blood vessel in the ear leading to a aural haematoma (blood blister) and these require veterinary attention.
Lodged grass may require removal by a vet to ensure they don’t cause further damage and subsequent ear medication to treat any infection or inflammation caused by the grass seed.
Closed eyelids, heavy tear productionor constant pawing at the eye can be signs of grass seed penetration, and detecting a grass seed in your dog or cat’s eye can be quite difficult. It’s possible for them to get caught between the eyelid and the eye itself, including behind the third eyelid. Signs that your pet might have a grass seed caught in their eye include squinting or rubbing the eye. If your dog or cat appears to have something in their eye, gently open the eyelids and inspect their eyes in a well-lit room.
If you detect a grass seed, you may be able to grasp it gently with your fingertips to remove it, or use the eyelid to gently roll it out. If you’re successful in removing it, you still should have your vet check for any other damage. If you are unable to find anything and the problem persists, then have it checked by your vet immediately. Do not delay in seeking veterinary assistance as the seed can be abrasive on the cornea, and it as well as other debris, can carry bacteria. Grass seeds are common causes of conjunctivitis and ulcers which can create further damage, and loss of the vision is a potential risk in severe cases.
Grass seeds becoming lodged in paws is a common problem and it occurs when animals stand on a seed. The seed gets stuck underneath their paw or gets caught between their toes. It can affect all breeds of dogs and cats but is a particular problem for long haired dog breeds that tend to have more hair between their toes.
Problems arise when the seeds work their way through the skin and travel up between the tendons and ligaments. There is a high chance of infection, as the seeds often carry soil and bacteria. The grass seeds cause irritation in the body which is often indicated by swelling, particularly above where the toes join the top of the foot. Weeping sores that the animal constantly licks or chews can be a sign, or lameness. Fever or a general lack of vitality, could be signs of more advanced infection.
Fortunately, most grass seeds burst out at the top of the foot, but they can move up the leg and cause ongoing problems. Identification and removal isn’t always easy, and some animals require sedation so that vets can probe for the seed. Recurring swelling and infection can be expected until the seed is removed. Embedded grass seeds are painful and can harbour bacteria from the environment including the bacteria which can cause tetanus. A veterinarian may prescribe pain relief, antibiotics and an anti-tetanus toxin injection.
How to minimise the risks
- Be especially vigilant during spring and summer when grass seeds are most likely to be a problem. Mow lawns regularly and keep grass and weeds under control to reduce the number of grass seeds.
- Avoid long grass when walking your dog, and keep them on a lead when possible. If visiting off-leash dog parks, keep your dog away from areas with long grass. Check your dog carefully when you get home from a walk, and your cat when it’s been in long grass. This provides the opportunity to check for ticks as well as grass seeds. Inspect between their toes, under their paws, tail, and collar, and in the places where grass seed and ticks could burrow.
- Keep your dog’s hair clipped close, to reduce the risk of grass seed attachment. Floppy eared dogs should have their hair clipped short on the inside of the ear flap and at the entrance to the ear canal.
The signs of a grass seed vary greatly but the common things to watch for include:
- Limping or chewing paws
- Matted hair and local swelling
- Scratching the ear
- Scratching at the eye, or tearing
- Coughing or retching
- Persistent sneezing
- Head tilted to one side
- Lethargy, depression and a lack of appetite
If your pet exhibits any of these signs, conduct a thorough inspection immediately. Some grass seeds, such as in an animal’s coat, may be easily removed by hand or with a brush. Others, such as in the nose, will need special attention by a vet. When a grass seed has penetrated through the surface layers of tissue, serious problems can occur quickly. Initial wounds may heal uneventfully but once the seed is trapped it can migrate throughout the body and end up almost anywhere.Grass seeds should therefore be taken very seriously.
Don’t forget that even after a grass seed has been removed, there could still be damage that requires veterinary attention. If you any questions about what to look for, and what to do, contact us for advice.