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Grass seeds and dogs

What problems can grass seeds cause?

Grass seeds are a common problem, particularly during the summer months. They are attached to the tops of long grass stems and can easily brush off onto your dog during walks. Although tiny, they have the potential to cause real pain to your dog. The seeds have pointy ends and are very sharp so they easily become trapped in a dog’s fur and can burrow down the coat to pierce the skin. Unfortunately, in rare cases, the grass seed can go under the skin and travel to other areas of the body. They have even been known to end up in the chest area. The seeds can also get stuck in eyes and ears. Once they start travelling around the body they can be very difficult to find.

What dogs are at risk of problems with grass seeds?

All dogs can be affected by grass seeds, but they cause much more of a problem in breeds with feathery toes that enjoy bounding through long grass, such as springer spaniels. It is a good idea for owners to check the bits of their dogs with long hair, in particular the feet and ears, after exercise – especially if you have walked through areas with long grass.

How do I tell if my dog has been affected by grass seeds?

Typically, with a grass seed in the paw, owners will notice a painful swelling between the toes.

Dogs who have seeds stuck inside their paws are also likely to lick at them constantly and vigorously and be limping. Your dog may suddenly start shaking their head and pawing at their ear after a walk if they have got one or more seeds down the ear. Sudden onset violent sneezing may mean a seed in the nose.

Is there anything I can do to protect my dog from grass seeds?

Keep hair around ears and paws short to minimise the risk of grass seeds sticking and burrowing into the skin. Inspecting your dog after a walk and removing any seeds will also help reduce the likelihood of any penetrating the skin.

What should I do if I think grass seeds are causing problems for my dog?

If you get back from a walk and notice a grass seed in the coat or on the surface of your dog’s skin, remove it straight away. But if you spot a seed that has started to burrow into your dog’s skin, or if your dog is licking or chewing at a sore place, or think your pet might have a seed in his or her eyes or ears, contact your vet.

Grass seeds are a common problem among dogs during the summer months. They easily get into a dog's fur and can pierce through the skin. Read our advice on protecting your dog from grass seeds.

Dog seed

Grass-seed season: medical problems caused by grass seeds peak in spring and summer.

Amongst the Australian veterinary community, spring and summer are known as grass-seed season. This is when many dogs seek veterinary care for medical problems caused by grass seeds.

It’s hard to imagine that a simple grass seed can cause issues but they are a big problem for dogs in many areas of Australia . In one recent study from south west rural NSW, 2% of the dogs seen at veterinary clinics during spring and summer came in because of grass seeds. Medical issues ranged from mild swelling to life-threatening illness .

What grass seeds are causing the problem and how?

A dog’s body is a lot less dense than soil, so once the seed enters the body it can keep travelling large distances, ending up in the bladder, lungs, spinal cord, and even the brain.

Symptoms depend on where the awn enters the body, what path it takes, and where it ends up.

Why do grass seeds cause problems?

The body recognizes the grass seed as foreign and tries to wall it off and remove it. The grass seeds also naturally carry bacteria, which cause infection. This creates a strong inflammatory reaction, with pain, swelling, and pus. Technically, this inflammatory reaction is called an abscess.

Dogs are always sniffing with their noses to the ground. Grass seeds frequently get snorted up the nose or inhaled down the windpipe. Once inside the body, the seeds migrate. The seeds will take the path of least resistance.

For example, grass seeds that are inhaled go down to the lungs. There they cause pneumonia. From the lungs, the grass seeds tend to travel into the chest space (outside the lungs), then follow the diaphragm (the muscle between the chest and the abdomen) towards the spine, and travel up into the spinal cord. Such dogs will have symptoms of spinal cord disease and may have trouble walking . Grass seeds that enter the vagina frequently end up in the bladder and cause a bladder infection. [1-5]

Ears are another very common site for grass seeds. The study from rural NSW actually found that 47% of dogs with grass seeds coming to see a general vet, actually had the grass seed stuck in their ear. The grass seed not only causes irritation and infection but it can pierce the ear drum and cause infection inside the ear.

Risk factors

Contrary to what you might think, dogs with medium-length coats are actually at highest risk compared to dogs with short-haired or long-haired coats. They are three times more likely than other dogs to have problems. It is not the length of coat that matters but the density. Medium-length coats have a higher density undercoat, which traps the grass awns and is more likely to hold them closely against the skin.

Working dogs, who spend much time amongst the fields, are at particular risk . Any dog that has access to farmland is twice as likely to be affected.

Breeds reported to be at higher risk include:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Border Collies
  • Spaniels (of all types)
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Kelpies
  • Shih Tzus

The grasses that cause problems flower from October to December, mainly in response to rain. So, more dogs are seen with grass seed issues following lots of rain in spring and summer.

The symptoms of grass seeds depend on where they enter the body, where they travel in the body, and where they end up.

Grass seeds in the following sites, may cause these symptoms:

  • Trouble walking
  • Decreased appetite
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble weeing
  • (often follows pneumonia)


Diagnosis

Diagnosis is usually confirmed by retrieving the grass seed from the site, usually under anaesthetic. Most vets will assume that any painful swelling on a dog during spring and summer, particularly one that is oozing pus, could be caused by a grass seed. This is especially so if the swelling is on the foot or if the coat has grass seeds attached.

For eyes and ears, grass seeds are very painful. The ear or eye will need to be examined under some form of sedation to find the seed. Endoscopy (using a tube with a camera attached) may be needed if a grass seed is suspected up the nose or down the throat.

For seeds inside the body, it can be very difficult to work out that a grass seed is causing the problem. Such dogs may come in with a range of symptoms, such as a fever from pneumonia or trouble walking if the seed is in the spinal cord. Many such cases end up being referred to veterinary specialists, sometimes weeks after the grass seed has entered the body.

Only in about 20% of cases is the grass seed obvious. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) may be used as well. Surgery is ultimately required to find and treat the abscess and remove the seed. This confirms the diagnosis.
An ultrasound can sometimes help find the grass seed in swellings that keep recurring under the skin.

Very occasionally, a grass seed will continue to travel until it comes out the other side of the leg or body. In most instances, however, the seed needs to be surgically removed. Abscesses need to be opened and drained to remove the pus and find the grass seed. It can be quite difficult to find the grass seed because it can disintegrate with the moisture. If it can’t be found, the abscess is usually cleaned thoroughly with saline in the hope that that flushes the material out.

If the grass seed isn’t found and is still in there, the chance of the abscess reforming is higher. Sometimes, all we can do is wait to see if an abscess will reform there or elsewhere and do repeat surgery to try and find the seed again. Antibiotics are also often given to help fight the infection as well as pain relief and an anti-inflammatory.

The best thing you can do to prevent grass seeds embedding in your dog’s skin is to groom (brush) your dog weekly. In one study, clipping the fur and searching for grass seeds was found to be ineffective. However, weekly grooming made a big difference. This is not related to grooming the seeds out. Rather, it is because grooming reduces the density of the undercoat. It also reduces the number of cross-hairs. This decreases the chance of grass seeds sticking within the coat.

If you do have a dog with dense hair around the bottom of their paws, such as Cocker Spaniels, I do recommend that you clip the hair around the paws very short . It won’t necessarily stop grass seeds from getting in there but it makes it much easier to find them and identify problems.

For working dogs that wear muzzles, putting some coarse mesh over the top may help to prevent grass seeds from being inhaled or you could invest in a dedicated hood.

Dog seed Grass-seed season: medical problems caused by grass seeds peak in spring and summer. Amongst the Australian veterinary community, spring and summer are known as grass-seed season.