By David F. Kramer
When it comes to risks to the health of our dogs, the culprits are literally all around us. While a nice walk outside is quality time for both dog and owner, it too can be fraught with potential danger. While you might be on the lookout for cars, squirrels, skunks, and porcupines, one hazard you might not be aware of is the lowly grass awn.
What is a Grass Awn?
Whether you call them awns, mean seeds, timothy, foxtails, cheat grass, June grass, Downy Brome, or any other number of colloquial names, to dogs they generally mean one thing, and that’s trouble.
An awn is a hairy, or bristle-like, appendage growing from the ear or flower of barley, rye, and many types of widely growing grasses. The awn’s spikes and sharp edges serve a purpose—to stick and hold fast to surfaces so that they can spread their seeds to surrounding areas.
While part of the purpose of awns is to attach to passing animals and be distributed to other areas, this relationship is by no means symbiotic. Those sharp ends allow the awn to penetrate into and through the skin and tissues of a dog.
Shown: Common wheat grass awns / Image credit: Smith Veterinary Hospital
How Do Grass Awns Injure Dogs?
Pretty much any contact a dog has with grass awns is potentially hazardous. Grass awns can be inhaled, become lodged in the ears, swallowed, or even just imbedded in the coat or skin. It is when they are not quickly removed by the owner, or expelled by the animal, that they become problematic.
This risk also has quite a bit to do with where you live. A leashed city dog is far less likely to come across awns, but even the most urban locales still have areas that are overgrown with all types of vegetation. So, a working dog used for tracking or hunting through the countryside might come across awns regularly, but an urban dog that spends a few moments exploring a neglected back alleyway can still be at risk.
“When I practiced in Wyoming, I saw a number of dogs with grass awns in their noses. I think the combination of lots of tall grass in the environment and dogs running off leash was to blame,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates of Fort Collins, Colorado.
“Dogs tend to ‘lead with their noses’ when they’re exploring, so it’s not too surprising that a sharp seed head from a long piece of grass might get lodged up there.”
Next: What Are the Symptoms of Grass Awn Infection?