Summer weather is here! Sun, blue sky, warm days… so hopefully that means you and your dog are spending lots of time outside together. It also means taking precautions with the sun, hydration and the heat; all are topics that are getting lots of media play right now.
I also want to bring attention to a more… herbaceous… factor of playing around in the great outdoors that could be harmful for your pup: Spear grass. For those of you reading this in California, I’m talking about Foxtail grass. In fact, during my travels I have found that these grasses have become known by a few different names: porcupine grass, needle grass, silver spike grass, and all refer to wild grass with barbed seeds that often look similar to wheat.
It has been a hot and dry year out West so far and these are the conditions that spear grasses pose the biggest risk. It’s a problem that’s small in size but mighty in impact. The little seeds that are attached to these grasses, specifically the barbs that are found on the seedpods, can cause serious damage and even require surgery when they dry out during the summer season. These barbs work just like a porcupines barbs. Once the dermal layer, or skin has been penetrated, there is only one way for the seedpod to go, and that is deeper into the body.
This design is not uncommon in the plant world. Plants have developed multiple ingenious ways to have their seeds transported by animals and Mother Nature. Unfortunately, once a spear grass seedpod has entered the dermal layer, the body recognizes it as a foreign body and mounts an inflammatory response around it.
For a canine, critical areas of contact are also the areas most prone to picking up these grass seeds. Feet, nose, mouth, ears and genitals are all areas that need to be monitored. The penetration of spear grass and subsequent inflammatory response can result in the manifestation of a variety of symptoms. Locally, one will notice small areas that become swollen, red and infected, causing extreme itching. This inflammatory response can result in your canine acting lame if their paws are affected, extreme head shaking, licking, yelping and rubbing to the point of rubbing themselves raw with itchy frustration. Some seedpods can bury deep enough that they cannot be found. Those found could form abscesses that, when removed, require a drain in order for proper healing to occur. Very often, removal of spear grasses or foxtails will require that the animal be sedated and, even after removal, complications from the seed’s initial presence can cause lasting problems (e.g. deafness from seed penetrating membrane in ear canal).
The solution to the problem is not to avoid the outdoors during the dry months of the summer when the grasses harden off and produce these seedpods, but rather regular inspection of your dog before and after outings. By performing a body check beforehand, we have a baseline for our post-outing inspection.
Here is what you should be looking at:
- Ears, eyes, the spaces between toes and mouth all need extra attention and are to be carefully inspected as these are the highest risk places for contact and can have the fastest and largest negative impact if seedpods are left there.
- It is also important to brush out your canines fur to make sure it hasn’t picked up any seedpods that could work their way down to the skin.
- When you brush your canine’s teeth, make sure you check their tongue, gums and jowls for any foreign bodies or signs of irritation.
- Carefully (and with help if needed) trim the fur between their pads to decrease the chance that grasses can be picked up.
- KNOW what grows around you. There are different types of spear grasses that look quite different. Some grow in different regions. Ask your veterinarian what you should be aware of in your area. Greenhouses and nurseries are also a great place to get plant information to help narrow your searches!
- Set Up For Success. If the field is 95% spear grass, spend the extra 10-15 minutes moving to the next best location.
The extra time spent on these few steps can help make sure you and your canine have a safe and enjoyable summer, and minimize the stress of unplanned veterinarian trips and seeing your loved one in pain. Don’t be afraid, be prepared!