Animal Health Matters: How could a tiny grass seed harm your dog?

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

Jake had been a little gimpy for the last couple days.

You couldn’t tell it when he was chasing a rabbit full speed through the tall grass, though. His one-track mind when it came to hunting overshadowed any ache or pain. But Jake’s owner could tell something was up. As the dog returned to the farm yard after his latest expedition, he was clearly favoring one of his front legs. He sat down in the shade of the machine shed and became focused on licking that paw.

Afraid that Jake had cut himself, his caretaker bent over and took the foot, wet with slobber, in his hand. The examination revealed what looked like a little cut between two of Jake’s toes. It didn’t look too terrible: Jake had certainly healed up from worse injuries during his hunting days.

As the rest of the week unfolded, Jake didn’t get any worse, but he didn’t get any better, either. That cut wasn’t healing. A trip to the vet was in the cards.

Dr. Peterson gave Jake the once-over once he was up on the exam table. Jake was the picture of health except for that nagging lame paw. “Tell you what,” she told Jake’s owner. “Sometimes these things are more than what they seem. Let’s keep him here for the day. We’ll give him some sedative and do a more thorough examination.”

Jake’s owner got the text message just a few hours later – his dog was ready to go home. When he walked into the vet clinic’s reception area, Dr. Peterson greeted him – along with Jake, but also with a square of gauze holding a tiny brown object. “Here’s what was bothering Jake,” she told him. It was a grass seed, about a quarter inch long.

The doctor went on to describe how she found that the cut bothering Jake was actually an opening in his skin between the toes leading to a little tunnel in the underlying flesh. At the end of that tunnel, retrieved by a forceps, was this little grass awn – causing a local infection that drained through the skin opening.

Noting the owner’s amazement, Dr. Peterson went on to explain. “These grass awns – especially from ryegrass and cheatgrass – are really good at sticking to an animal’s haircoat as a way of being transported from place to place. If they stay in place a while, they can poke into the skin as a result of the dog’s natural body movements. Once they’re under the skin, it’s amazing how they can migrate.”

It turns out that Jake’s situation was one of the simpler ones: the grass awn hadn’t moved far from where it first penetrated, so it was able to be removed. The tract would heal up rapidly now that the infection-causing object was gone. It probably helped that Jake’s owner didn’t wait too long to bring him in.

Once under the skin of an active dog, these penetrating grass awns can migrate to some amazing parts of the body. It’s not unheard of for them to end up in the chest cavity, causing a severe infection called pyothorax. Pyothorax is a severe condition describing the chest cavity filling up with pus, hampering the dog’s ability to breathe. These awns can also end up in the spinal canal, where an infection could paralyze. Grass awns can also cause more superficial problems, becoming lodged in eyelids, ears, or the nose. Their sticky nature makes them hard for dogs to get rid of.

To prevent these problems, check your dog regularly for seeds sticking to the fur, paying attention to spaces between the toes, footpads, and under the legs. A good brushing will help remove the awns before they poke into the skin. It helps to trim matted fur, as it harbors these sticky seeds very well. Paying attention to subtle signs like constant paw-licking, a watery eye, or sore ear will help you fix these problems before they get worse. And – of course – a call to your vet when you suspect a problem is always the best course of action.