What are plant awns?
As the dog days of summer approach and lush spring grasses go to seed, plant awn foreign bodies can cause many problems as they become lodged in ears, between toes, and under skin. These seeds are known by many names with foxtails, grass seeds, and plant awns being the most common. In our region, cactus spines will also cause very similar signs and problems. Foxtails are very similar to a fish hook in that one end is "barbed" so that the seed tends to migrate in one direction. These seeds tend to get tangled in furry coats and the "barb" penetrates into the skin and begins to migrate into deeper tissues where our problem develops. Though rare, these plant awns have been found to migrate as deep as into the chest cavity to become stuck in important organs such as the lungs.
What should I look for?
The most common places for foxtails to become lodged are between your dogs toes, under their skin, or in their ears. Foxtails do not tend to cause pain until they have begun to migrate into deeper tissues or their tract becomes infected. Often, animals will present to our office with a painful foot and upon close inspection a small area of swelling or a small puncture is located in the space between their toes. Animals with grass seeds present in their ears will often have secondary ear infections which you will notice by a dark brown material and pain or swelling of the ear canal. Animals will also often shake their heads excessively or walk with their heads tilted to one side.
Otis has a significant head tilt to the right
This paw has a very suspicious lesion for a penetrating foxtail foreign body
What can I do to prevent this?
In order to prevent grass seeds from penetrating into your dogs skin it is important to check their coats and feet for these objects regularly. If your pet is a breed with particularly furry feet, a long coat or a shaggy coat like a cocker spaniel, labradoodle, or golden retriever they tend to be predisposed to attracting these foreign materials and it can be quite beeficial to have their feet or coats trimmed short during the summer months. By regularly examining your pet and removing any grass seeds found, you will prevent infection and and migration of the grass awns.
What about ears?
It can be hard to believe that these little seeds can work themselves all the way down into the ear canals but somehow they do it. Seeds in ears can be difficult to prevent but the same rules apply as for fur and feet. If you notice your dog has a head tilt or is shaking their head excessively and ear exam is necessary to determine the cause.