How to get extreme weed seeds out of dogs

Foxtails: A serious threat to your pets from a common weed

Southern California has the best climate in the nation. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too much rainfall. This makes it an ideal place to live. Unfortunately it also makes it a ripe environment for wild weeds. Most of these weeds are not harmful. But one weed in particular, while being completely non-toxic is an extreme threat to your pets. While this weed can grow almost anywhere in the world, Southern California has the best habitat for it and it can grow anywhere, from the chaparral covered hills to an empty lot or your own backyard.

“Wild barley” (Hordeum murinum) is commonly called “foxtail” or “foxtail Brome grass” due to the distinctive shape of its seed cluster. During the early spring, these weeds start to populate anywhere the seeds had been carried the previous summer. While green, they pose little danger. Once the seeds mature and the plant begins to wither (around May most years), the seeds can fall off the plant, either by blowing in the wind (less common) or by sticking to the hair coat of a passing animal (more common.) These seeds are ideally suited to transmission via animals because of their shape. These seeds are in a “V” shape, with a sharp point on one end and microscopic barbs on the other. These barbs and this “V” shape allow the seed to firmly attach to the coat. Later, during grooming or running through other plants, these seeds can be knocked off and will sit in the soil until the following spring.

While this structure is a wonderful adaptation for this plant, this mechanism can cause a lot of problems for the animal “ride” it attaches to. This structure allows for the foxtail to “migrate” deeper into the coat with time. Because of those barbs, it cannot move back out again. So it just will continue to go deeper and deeper wherever it lands. This can cause a lot of problems.

Ears: Foxtails commonly get stuck on the head, as most dogs that run into the brush or weeds go head first. If a Foxtail gets up and under the ear flap (pinna) they can reach the ear canal. Then they migrate on down, deep and deeper. This is quite uncomfortable. Eventually it reaches the ear drum (tympanic membrane) and that nice pointed end allows it to rupture the eardrum and get into the middle ear. This causes severe pain and usually an ear infection as well. Signs are usually shaking the head or pawing at the ears. Whining is usually present. For most dogs, anesthesia is required to pull these out. I once removed 4 foxtails from one ear.

Eye: Again being on the receiving end of running through brush, foxtails can get trapped underneath the eyelids. This causes excruciating pain and usually a scratch (ulcer) on the cornea (clear part of the eye). Symptoms include pawing at the eye, eye redness (conjunctivitis), eye discharge, and squinting. Most dogs can have the foxtail removed with a local anesthetic. Topical antibiotics are always required. If the foxtail is not caught in time, it could cause rupture of the eye and require the eye to be removed.

Skin: In thick or long-coated breeds especially, foxtails can get caught in the fur. Eventually they work their way into the skin. All the way in. This causes a nasty sore which looks like a hole (puncture) with drainage from secondary infection. The foxtail is not usually visible because it is so far up the draining tract. In southern California foxtails are the number one cause of a non-healing draining wound. Once, I had a foxtail which had migrated a full foot distance under the skin. These lesions can be anywhere on the body, but the feet are especially prone. Symptoms include: lameness, licking (especially a single foot), or a draining sore. Treatment is removal of the foxtail and systemic (oral) antibiotics. These foxtails are covered with some especially nasty bacteria. Sometimes removal is easy, and can be performed with a local anesthetic. Usually general anesthesia (being asleep) is required. If the foxtails are in long enough, the body covers them with scar tissue, making them very difficult to find. Once in a while, these foxtails are found on a biopsy of what was though to be a tumor. Sometimes multiple procedures are required (especially if more than one foxtail was present in the wound.)

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Nose: Inhaling a foxtail causes immediate unrelenting sneezing. Within a short period of time, this sneezing can become quite bloody. THIS IS A VETERINARY EMERGENCY. Not only is this a very painful condition, but if that foxtail gets high enough it could get sucked into the lung (which is very, very bad.) Removal of a foxtail in the nose requires general anesthesia and rhinoscopy (a scope to be put into the nose) to find and remove the foxtail.

Throat: If a foxtail is inhaled/ingested through the mouth, symptoms could include coughing, gagging, or retching. Sometimes dogs with a foxtail stuck in the mouth, throat, or esophagus (tube running from mouth to stomach) will eat grass, or stand in a position with the neck extended while swallowing frequently. It would feel like you would if you got a fish bone stuck. Like inhaling a foxtail through the nose, getting a foxtail in the lungs is really bad.

Chest: A foxtail which is inhaled goes down the windpipe (trachea) and into the lungs. But it doesn’t stop there. They can actually go right through the lungs and into the chest cavity where they usually get stuck between ribs or up by the spine. Besides the unpleasantness of having foreign material migrating all over the chest, these foxtails pose a huge danger from the bacteria they bring with them. There are three types of infections to be worried about. Pneumonia (lung infection), a Pyothorax (where the chest fills up with pus), or diskospondylitis (bone infection of the spine.) All of these conditions are very serious and fatalities do occur. The foxtails are especially a problem because the infections do not heal if the foxtail is not removed. The foxtails are very difficult to find, as they are small, covering with infection and scar tissue, and are completely invisible on a radiograph (X-Ray). The most expensive veterinary case that I ever witnessed was at UC Davis with a Saint Bernard that had a pyothorax from a foxtail. He had multiple open chest surgeries (thoracotomies) and was in intensive care for a month. Luckily, he lived. The owners’ bill was well over $80,000.

If these weeds are everywhere, what can you do to prevent these problems from foxtails? Plenty.

  • While walking your dog, especially in rural areas or brush, keep them on the path on a short leash
  • Keep your yard clear of weeds
  • Do not allow your dog to walk through empty lots
  • Keep your pet’s fur kept trimmed short, especially the feet and ears. Cocker spaniels are especially prone if their fur is kept long. Trimming should be done as the hills are turning brown and every 6-8 weeks until the end of September.
  • Check your dog for foxtails daily and brush them daily.
  • If you suspect a foxtail or see one on your pet, bring them into a veterinarian immediately. When one foxtail is found, usually others are present. One foxtail plant can have dozens of seeds just waiting for a passerby.

Hopefully this article didn’t just scare you about this danger, but will educate and help to prevent your pet from having problems from these dangerous weeds. In the last 3 weeks, we have had 6 dogs with complications from Foxtails, one of which will likely require surgery for a foxtail near the spine by a specialist. Be vigilant and use good sense and prevention to keep your dog safe.

Grass Awns In Dogs: A Deadly Summer Danger

Walking through a grassy field in summer with your dog may seem harmless, but there could be deadly grass awns lurking in plain sight. Learn about how this common plant affects dogs, and how to prevent your dog from coming into harm’s way.

You might have noticed that dogs like to eat grass, but did you know that some types of grass can actually be deadly for your furry friend? In particular, we’re talking about grass awns, the summer danger for dogs that unfortunately many dog parents aren’t aware of. To help change that, we’ve gathered all the facts on grass seeds – a.k.a grass awns in dogs – and how they can be dangerous. That way, you can prep for a safe and healthy summer.

Table of contents

What is a grass awn?

Grass awns are the cause of many pet emergencies in summer. These awns find their way inside a dog’s body, where they don’t belong, leading to injury, infection and illness. But what, exactly, is a grass awn?

Grass awns are sharp, stiff, bristle-like structures which grow from the ear or flower of many types of wild grasses and grains, including barley and rye. 1 Awns come in all different shapes and sizes – some are barbed, some are needle-like.

Here’s an example of what a grass awn can look like, courtesy of veterinarian Darragh O’ Hanlon (a.k.a @thetopicalvet).

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Other names for grass awns

Due to their large variety, grass awns are called by many names, including:

  • mean seeds
  • foxtails
  • june grass
  • timothy hay
  • cheatgrass
  • downy brome
  • needle grass
  • wild barley
  • spear grass
  • bromegrass

How do grass awns hurt dogs?

The problem with grass awns is that they tend to get into your dog’s fur and eventually skin, causing pain and injury. Grass awns can be inhaled, swallowed and even get under a dog’s skin.

If not removed in time, grass awns can lead to infection and abscesses – that is, yucky pockets of pus – that need to be drained. And it’s good to act fast, because grass awns which have entered a dog’s body can migrate inside there, causing damage to internal organs such as the lungs, brain, stomach and spinal cord. This disrupts normal body functions, and can lead to sickness and even death.

Check out Barney’s story below, a real dog who was wounded and had to take a trip to the vet, all because of a few tiny grass seeds:

Which dogs are most at risk of grass awn injury?

Dogs that spend a lot of time in un-mowed, wild, green areas are most likely to suffer injury from grass awns or foxtails. That puts the following at more risk:

  • sporting dogs
  • field dogs
  • hunting dogs

Grass awn on dog symptoms

Symptoms of grass awns in dogs vary depending on where the awn lands on your dog’s body. Use the chart below to help determine where on your dog the awn might be, based on what symtpoms they’re showing:

Location Signs of Grass Awn in Dogs
Fur / coat – no visible infection or abscess
– matted hair
Inside the ear – scratching/rubbing the ear
– shaking the head
– holding head at a slight angle
In the eye – inflamed eye(s)
– discharge or tears
Nose – sneezing
– pawing or rubbing at the nose
– nasal discharge or drainage
Gums, tongue, mouth or throat – inflammation
– swelling
Between the toes – redness
– swelling
– draining tract
– inability to walk on the affected paw
Lungs or other organs (inhalation or migration) – tiredness
– fever
– weight loss
– shortness of breath
– vomiting
– other signs of sickness

Be on the lookout if your dog seems to lick, scratch, rub, or chew excessively at a certain spot on their body; this could be a sign of a grass awn infection. Also look for redness, inflammation, irritation, and sores with discharge. Take note if your dog seems extra tired, depressed or has a lowered appetite.

If you spot any of these symptoms, it’s best to see your vet immediately.

When is it safe to remove a grass awn from my dog?

If you notice some grass awns on your dog’s fur, remove them as soon as possible. You can remove them by hand, or use a brush to speed things up 2 .

It is generally safe to remove grass awns from your dog yourself, as long as the awns have not got into your dog’s body.

If you notice grass awns have punctured the skin, or are in your dog’s nose for example, it’s best not to remove them yourself but seek a vet’s assistance as soon as possible.

Since awns typically have hooks or barbs at the end of them, removing them yourself could cause them to snap or break. This means that a tiny piece of the awn might remain in your dog’s body, leading to local inflammation and infection. Not to mention, it could travel deeper into the dog’s body and damage internal organs.

It’s best to see a vet immediately if you suspect a grass awn might have penetrated your dog’s skin (or any other body part).

Treatment for grass awns in dogs

Treatment for grass awns in dogs first involves identifying the injury, which is tricky because grass awns can be difficult to spot. At the vet, a thorough physical examination will help to determine the location of the grass awn. X-rays or ultrasound may also be used to locate awns. The goal of treatment is to successfully remove the grass awn and remove or heal any tissue that has been affected. This often involves surgery and antibiotic therapy, not to mention medicine against pain and inflammation 3 .

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Prevention for grass awns in dogs

It’s difficult to completely rule out the chances of your dog coming into contact with grass awns. But here are some precautions you can take to avoid having to go to the vet with a grass awn emergency later:

  • Check your dog’s coat and feet regularly; remove any grass seeds as soon as you find them
  • If your dog has a long, shaggy coat, trim their hair (if that’s an option) in summer months
  • Brush or comb your dog immediately after they spend time outdoors
  • When inspecting your dog for awns, double check the toes, ears, and shoulders
  • Trim the fur between your dog’s toes and paw pads (find out how to protect your dog’s feet like a pro)
  • Learn what different types of grass awns look like, and which can be found in your area
  • Keep potentially dangerous weeds out of your yard
  • Avoid grassy fields and paths
  • Walk your dog on a leash
  • Get a Tractive GPS tracker to track your dog in real-time, and know if they wander off into a grassy patch. Live in an area where your dog can roam free? See if your buddy has spent a lot of time in the green in the past few days
  • Use protective gear, such as a vest, in case your dog spends a lot of time outdoors in summer

Summary

Unfortunately, grass awns or grass seeds from various types of plants like barley and wheat can be a serious threat to dogs in summer. Awns are thin, sharp, spiky and barbed extensions of the flower or ear of a grass, designed to latch on to what’s nearby and spread its seeds. When the sharp ends of grass awns penetrate a dog’s body, it can lead to injury, illness, infection and – in extreme cases – death.

To keep your buddy safe, remove grass awns from your dog’s fur whenever you see them. If the awn is in your dog’s nose, or has punctured your dog’s body, take a trip to the vet. Do not attempt to remove the awn yourself, as this could cause it to snap and leave a small bit of it in your dog. This can lead to further issues like infection and inflammation. In the worst case scenario, grass awns in dogs can travel throughout your dog’s body, causing damage to vital organs, and hurting your furry friend’s health.

You can keep your dog safe from grass seeds by walking them on a leash to prevent them from running through grass, or tracking them with a GPS tracker. If they are outdoors often, a vest or other type of protective gear can come in handy. Inspect your dogs for grass awns after they spend time outside, and keep the fur between their toes trimmed.

If you suspect your dog has come in contact with foxtails, mean seeds or any type of grass awn, do not hesitate to seek veterinary assistance.

For more tips on this topic, check out the video below:

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How to Get Burrs Out of Dog Hair

This article was co-authored by Lancy Woo. Lancy Woo is a Certified Pet Groomer and the Owner of VIP Grooming, a pet grooming salon based in San Francisco, California. VIP Grooming has served San Francisco for over 35 years. Lancy received her pet grooming certification from the WWPSA (Western Word Pet Supply Association). VIP Grooming has been voted “Best in the Bay” in 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2019 and won Bay Woof’s “Beast of Bay” in 2014. In 2018, Lancy’s work contributed to VIP Grooming’s acceptance onto San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s Legacy Business Registry.

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After a hike or a day running around in a field, many dogs manage to get burrs embedded in their fur. These burrs can range from numerous pinpoint-sized burrs to singular large burrs. Regardless of size, they can be difficult to remove and painful for the dog. Thus, you should take the time to learn how to remove these burrs without hurting your dog.