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Can Grass Kill Your Dog?

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What Are the Symptoms of Grass Awn Infection?


If a dog has an awn stuck in its nasal cavity, sneezing is usually among the first symptoms, says Dr. Coates. After a while, the problem might result in nasal drainage or infection. A dog might also excessively rub its nose.


According to Veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney of California, the symptoms of a plant awn imbedding in the skin include inflammation, redness, irritation, and draining sores which have a clear or purulent (pus) discharge. He also says to be on the lookout for draining tracts (an opening through the skin surface from which the discharge drains), licking, scratching, chewing, or pawing at the site, lethargy, depression, and a decreased appetite.


How to Remove a Grass Awn from Your Dog - And When You Should Not


So, are awns something about which you should always consult your veterinarian? Well, that can be difficult to answer.


According to Dr. Coates, “If you see grass awns in your dog’s coat, remove them as quickly as possible. You can either pick them out by hand or use a brush to speed up the process.”


But removing an awn from a dog’s nose can go beyond tricky.


“An owner can attempt to remove a plant awn from their dog’s nose, but I don’t suggest doing so,” says Dr. Mahaney. “Foxtails and other plant awns typically have barbs (hooks) that firmly grasp any fabric or tissue with which they come into contact. As a result, the plant awn stays imbedded in tissue and attempts to remove the awn can lead to breakage at some point along the length of the awn and retention of the awn in the dog’s nose.”


Further explaining the danger of incomplete removal, Dr. Mahaney added that “the imbedded awn not only causes inflammation and infection at the site, but the awn generally continues to move in a forward direction and can travel great distances through body cavities from the site of imbedding.”


grass awn, awns and dog

Shown: Brittle grass awn breaking into smaller pieces / Image credit:


Worst Case Scenarios with Grass Awns


“Once a grass awn has penetrated through the surface layers of tissue, problems can go from bad to worse rather quickly,” says Dr. Coates. “Usually, the initial wound heals uneventfully and owners are not even aware that anything has happened, but the awn is now trapped and can start to migrate throughout the body. They can end up almost anywhere, including the lungs, the spinal cord or brain, and within abdominal organs.”


“Migrating grass awns produce infection and inflammation and disrupt normal body functions,” says Dr. Coates.


“Symptoms depend on the part of the body that is affected. I remember one case of a dog who was lame and had pus draining out of a muscle in his shoulder.” “A course of antibiotics and exploring the drainage tract for foreign material while the dog was anesthetized didn’t work,” said Dr. Coates. “Eventually, a board-certified veterinary surgeon was able to locate the grass awn and remove it, and a lot of infected and damaged muscle. The dog recovered, but only because the owner was willing to keep trying.”


Getting your pet to the vet early will greatly improve its chances for avoiding the kinds of complications that can happen when owners hope that time will heal the wound.


“When untreated, it's likely that the clinical signs of irritation and infection will worsen,” says Dr. Mahaney. Due to the potential for plant awns to travel through body tissues, there’s the likelihood that if the awn moves far enough it can enter into a body cavity and cause more severe clinical signs.”


Dr. Mahaney relates, “I’ve seen a case where a foxtail imbedded in the skin of the chest and wound its way through the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) and entered the chest cavity, causing severe inflammation, infection, pleural effusion (fluid accumulation between the lungs and the chest wall), lung collapse, and other severe secondary problems. The dog was ultimately euthanized, as the owner was not able to continue to pursue the required treatment (drainage of fluid from the chest cavity, exploratory thoracic surgery, hospitalization, laboratory testing, diagnostic imaging, etc.).”


“A plant awn that enters the nasal cavity is definitely concerning because it can potentially migrate through the nasal turbinates (scroll-like structures within the nasal passages) and butt up against cribriform plate, which is a bony structure that separates the brain from the nasal passages,” says Dr. Mahaney. “I’m not aware of the ability for a foxtail to penetrate the cribriform plate and enter the brain, but I guess one can never say never.”


Next: How to Protect Your Dog from Grass Awn Injury