Grasses are a natural part of ecosystems that provide shelter and food for wildlife and birds, stabilizes the land by preventing soil erosion, and improves water quality. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) which allows farmers who enroll in CRP to let some of their land set idle in exchange for a yearly rental payment. The program is voluntary and designed to protect sensitive areas and allow for regrowth of ground cover to improve habitats. Farmers in the program are encourage to plant a mixture of different species of native and tame grasses on their idle farmland. Among approved grasses are three with barbed seed awns responsible for Grass Awn Migration Disease that can cause serious injury and even kill dogs and cats. Foxtail barley, cheatgrass, and Canada wild rye are three grasses dog and cat owners should be able to recognize to keep their pets safe. Sporting dog owners train their dogs and conduct field trials in these same environments, and dog owners taking their dog on an afternoon outing to run off excess energy are often unaware of the danger in these innocent looking grasses waving in the breeze.
Mother Nature provides all living things with survival instincts and a means to reproduce. Birds and wildlife help plants spread their seeds in a variety of methods depending on the seed. Some grasses have sticky seed pods that grab hold of animal fur, bird feathers, or our clothing to hitch a ride to a new location where it falls or is rubbed off. The dangerous grass seeds, also known as mean seeds, for dogs and cats are the ones with barbed fish hook-like awns that work their way through a pet’s coat and can cause serious injury and even death if they go unnoticed. They can only move one way, and are difficult to remove once they pierce the skin These grasses mature in the spring and dry out, and that’s when they pose a danger to pets – May through late fall depending on your location.
Winter and spring rains cause the fast growing grasses to mature and form seed pods with bristly awns at the top of the stalk. Once they become dried out, the pods come off easily and stick to wild animals, dogs, cats, and our clothing. Animals with short coats are more likely to have the seeds drop off or rub off before they can become a problem, but dogs and cats with long coats don’t fair as well. What makes the seeds dangerous are fish-hook like sticky awns. The awn is designed with dagger-like hooks that only go in one direction and helps to burrow seeds into the ground. If unnoticed in a pet’s coat, an awn works through the coat as the animal moves. When it reaches skin, it keeps burrowing through it into the dog or cat’s body.
Seed awns can also enter the body through the genitals, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, paws. They can be ingested and inhaled. Grass Awn Migration Disease is a growing problem for hunting dogs because these barbed grasses are included on the CRP list of approved grasses farmers can plant. When working dogs wander through tall grass searching for their quarry in fields with foxtail, cheatgrass, and Canada wild rye, the risk is high for inhaling or picking up multiple awns with sharp pointed seeds. The wind can pick up dried seed awns and blow them onto your pet’s coat, or into an ear or eye.
Awns caught between the toes or paw pads can work through the paw and into the leg. One in the ear can pierce the ear drum. Awns have been found in the digestive tract, urethra, penis, lungs, other organs, brain, jowls, eyes, throat, and chest cavity of dogs and cats. Mean seeds can cause internal abscesses and serious infection as it moves through the body. The most common places to find awns on your pet is between the toes or paw pads, on their underbelly, under their collar, around the rear end, and around or inside the ears, mouth, and nose, but they can be attached anywhere on a pet’s coat.
Pyothorax is an accumulation of pus between the lung and chest wall which is brought on by an infection. Pus is a natural response by the body to fight bacteria. Awns aren’t absorbed by the body and leave a trail of infection as they travel through the body. Ingested awns that become lodged in the esophagus is one way dogs and cats can develop pyothorax. It’s a life-threatening condition that needs immediate vet care.
Signs of Grass Awn Migration Disease: excessive grooming or licking around the genitals, toes or pads, swollen between the toes, swelling or painful lumps, abscesses, puss on the skin, head tilting, violent head shaking, an odor coming from the ears or mouth, discharge from the ears or eyes, limping, pawing at the nose, mouth or eyes, violent sneezing, blood coming from the nose or genitals, squinting, redness in the eye, excessive tearing, eyes swollen shut, eye pain, gagging, exaggerated swallowing, coughing loudly, or pain anywhere on the body. If you notice any symptoms, call your vet immediately. If left untreated, a burrowing awn can require major surgery to find and remove the awn, and it can cause death.
Cheatgrass is found across the United States, including Alaska, Canada, and northern Mexico. This is an invasive grass native to Europe that found its way to North America on imports of contaminated crop seed during the mid to late 1800’s. It grows in fields, pastures, on rangeland, alongside roads, in ditches, and in almost any type of soil. Other names are drooping brome, thatch bromegrass, military grass, broncograss, downy chess, early chess, soft chess, and wild oats.
Canada Wild Rye is a native grass found throughout the United States except for Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, throughout Canada, and parts of Mexico. This grass is found along fence rows, in open woodlands, along ditches, in depressions, ravines, and grasslands. Other names are wild rye, Prairie wild rye, Canadian wild rye, and Nodding wild rye.
Foxtail Barley is a native grass with spikes that resemble the tail of a fox, hence the name, and found in every state except Hawaii, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. It’s also widespread in Canada and parts of Mexico. It grows along roadsides, in ditches, fields, pastures, meadows, sometimes in yards, along mountain trails, along fences, vacant lots, irrigation ditches, next to streams and ponds, and in landfills. Other names are skunk-grass, squirrel-tail, wild barley, and foxtail.
The best way to protect your pet is to not let him wander through tall grass or areas where barbed grass seed awns are found. If your dog or cat has been in tall grass or you find an awn on your roaming pet, give him a thorough inspection and brushing. Check his entire body and look carefully between his paw pads, toes, inside his nose, ears, mouth, eyes, under the collar. Once an awn has become embedded, it won’t come out on its own. If you find one that has pierced the skin, don’t try to take it out yourself, especially if the area is red or swollen. It’s best to let your vet take it out so he can make sure the entire awn is removed.
Pictured: Foxtail Barley, Cheatgrass, Canada Wild Rye
How Did Fido Become a Common Generic Name That Means Any Dog
Raised Hackles in Dogs: Does it Matter Where the Hair is Raised?
The Fastest Dog Breeds: How Fast Are They?