Grass Awns in Dogs: A Deadly Summer Danger

2 September 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.

brown and white dog standing in field of grass awns

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 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.

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?

Glad you asked.

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).

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.

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

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
Dog in field with grass awns

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:

LocationSigns 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 up2.

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 inflammation3.

dog and grass awns

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.

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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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