Grass Awn Perils

It seems we are well past the halfway point of the year (it’s frightening how fast it happens every year) and harvesting is well upon us.  As vets, we see the passing of the year with the different conditions presented to us in our patients - autumn diarrhoea, spring fleas and tree pollen allergies and in high summer the dreaded wheat and grass awns or seeds.

The awns are an amazing creation of mother nature as the spiky ends catch on passing animals to spread their seeds far and wide. As children, we used to throw them like darts and see how many could be caught in dad’s jacket before he noticed. 

However, in long and curly haired breeds of dog especially, grass awns are a pest. Unlike short haired breeds, the awns get trapped in the longer fur, unable to drop off. When checking your dog after a walk, you often need to groom out the awns from deep down in the fur. If left these can also penetrate the skin and I remember one Springer Spaniel we had to anaesthetise to investigate multiple abscesses or boils all along his belly. In each one was a grass awn that had burrowed deep into the tissues.
The awns can penetrate the skin between the toes and the first sign owners notice is their pet continuously licking their paw. A swelling forms between the toes, and occasionally there will be a small hole where the awn has penetrated. Treatment involves sedation to allow exploration of the tract the awn has created but it can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. If retrieved and removed, the foot settles down and heals very quickly.
Another typical presentation of grass awns is the head tilt and violent head shaking that occurs when the awn goes into the ear canal. As the awn is like an arrow head, it cannot come out backwards and with the movement of muscles round the ear, the awn is gradually drawn further and further into the ear canal. At it’s worst it can even penetrate the ear drum and enter the middle ear. Sedation is often required even to examine the ear canal as it is such a painful condition. Ear drops or oral pain relief are needed afterwards to deal with any infection and damage.

The one that makes owners wince the most is the grass awn in the eye. This can happen in any breed and species from guinea pigs to Great Danes. The eye is swollen, and the eyelids closed over.  However, often just with the application of local anaesthetic, both eyelids and the third eyelid can be examined, and the grass awn removed. The surface layer of the eye, the cornea, also needs to be checked for any lacerations caused by the sharp end of the awn. Very rarely, the awn can penetrate to the back of the eye and forms an abscess behind it. This is a very serious condition possibly requiring removal of the eye.

So, harvest season is definitely here, and after walking your dog, check it through for awns and remove them immediately. Happy hunting.