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Can Grass Kill Your Dog?

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 is quality time for both and dog and owner, it too can be fraught with potential danger.


While you might be on the lookout for squirrels, skunks, porcupines, and other denizens of the forest, there are just as many hazards that make their homes closer to the ground, including the ground itself. One such hazard is the grass awn.


What is a Grass Awn? 


Whether you call them awns, 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. These spikes and sharp edges serve a purpose—to stick and hold fast to surfaces so that they can propagate and spread their seeds to surrounding areas.


While part of the purpose of awns is to have them attach to passing animals and be distributed to other areas, this relationship is by no means symbiotic. These sharp ends can allow the awn to act like the barb on the quill of a porcupine, moving it ever forward into the skin and tissues of a dog.


awns, dog and awn

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 can be 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.


Obviously, this risk has quite a bit to do with where you live. A city dog is far less likely to come across awns, but even the most urban locales still have areas that have become overgrown with all types of vegetation. So, a working dog used for tracking or hunting might come across awns regularly, but an urban dog that spends a few moments exploring a neglected back alleyway might be even more at risk. The problems occur mainly when dog owners are unaware of the affect that awns can have to their dogs.


“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?