Grass Awns in Dogs: A Deadly Summer Danger

21 July 2021

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.

grass awns and dog

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

You might have noticed that dogs like to eat grass, but did you know that some types of grass can actually be deadly to 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 compiled all the facts about grass seed aka or grass awns in dogs and how they can be dangerous to your furry friend, so you can be prepared for a safe and healthy summer.

What is a grass awn?

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

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 (aka @thetopicalvet).

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 burrow into the dog’s fur and eventually skin, causing pain and injury. Grass awns can be inhaled, swallowed and even penetrate the dog’s skin.

grass awn graphic close up: grass awn in dogs under the skin illustration

If grass awns are not removed in a timely fashion, they can lead to infection and the formation of painful abscesses, which need regular drainage of fluids. Moreover, grass awns which have entered a dog’s body can migrate inside of it – 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 in furry friends.

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

Which dogs are most susceptible to grass awn injury?

Dogs that spend a lot of time in un-mowed, wild vegetation areas are most suceptible to injury from grass awns or foxtails, including:

  • sporting dogs
  • field dogs
  • hunting dogs
Dog in field with grass awns

Grass awn on dog symptoms

The symptoms of grass awns in dogs vary depending on where the awn is located. Use the chart below to help you determine where the awn might be if your dog shows the following symptoms:

Location of Grass Awn on DogSymptoms of Grass Awn Infection
Fur / coat– no infection or abscesses
– 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)– lethargy
– 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 a discharge on the body. Finally, take note if your dog is lethargic, depressed or has a decrease appetite. It’s best to see your vet immediately in case of these symptoms.

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 help speed up the process2.

It is generally safe to remove grass awns from your dog yourself any time the awns have not penetrated the 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 veterinary assistance as soon as possible.

Since the awns typically have hooks or barbs at the end of them, removing them yourself could cause breakage. This means that a tiny piece of the awn could 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.

So it’s best to see a vet immediately if you suspect that 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 the foreign object. 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 pain and anti-inflammatory medicine3.

dog and grass awns

Prevention for grass awns in dogs

It’s difficult to completely eliminate the possibility of your dog coming into contact with grass awns. But here are some precautions you can take to hopefully 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 they are found
  • Your dog has a long, shaggy coat? Trim the hair if possible during 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 (How-to guide: Protect your dog’s feet like a pro)
  • Become aware of 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 walking areas
  • Walk your dog on a leash
  • Get a GPS dog tracker, such as Tractive GPS, so that you can see your dog’s whereabouts at all times.
  • Use protective gear, such as a vest, for dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors in summer

Summary

Unfortunately, grass awns or grass seeds from various types of plants like barley and wheat can present a serious threat to our dogs in the summertime. The awn is a thin, sharp, spikey and barbed extension of the flower or ear of the grass, designed to latch on to nearby surroundings thereby spreading the seed of the plant. When the sharp ends of grass awns penetrate a dog’s body, injury, illness, infection and even death can result.

For best results, remove grass awns from your dog’s coat whenever you see them. If the awn is in your dog’s nose, or has punctured your dog’s body, then a trip to the vet is needed. Do not attempt to remove the awn yourself, as this could lead to breakage and further issues like infection and inflammation. In the worst case scenario, grass awns in dogs can migrate throughout the dog’s body, causing damage to vital organs, and deteriorating the health of your furry friend.

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, then a covering such as a vest or another type of protective gear is helpful. Inspect your dogs for grass awns after they’ve spent time outside, and keep fur between their toes trimmed.

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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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