There’s an old expression drilled into every vet student teaching us that ‘common things are common’ so when a dog enters my consulting room shaking its head or licking its paw during the summer months, top of my list of possible diagnoses is always the dreaded grass seed.
I say ‘dreaded’ for a few reasons which we’ll come to, but for unfortunate owners of dogs suffering from this extremely common seasonal problem, watching their beloved pooch looking so uncomfortable, usually lethargic, and in a lot of pain, can be equally as distressing as receiving the final bill for the treatment needed to fix this often preventable problem – another worthy reason to take out insurance for your four-legged friend.
The type of dog typicallly affected by grass seeds is the spaniel (pictured) but Jack Russells, Westies and basically all breeds possessing hairy ears and feet are at risk if walked in meadows or woodlands where these grasses commonly grow in abundance.
But just how can these tiny innocent little grass seeds cause potentially huge and expensive problems in such robust breeds of dog you may ask?
Well it’s mainly down to their minute shape coupled with nature’s unique design. When examined closely dry Foxtail grass seeds resemble tiny arrowheads (pictured) easily attaching themselves to an animal’s fur before travelling only one way in towards the skin of that victim’s bodypart.
The two most common presentations of a dog with a grass seed we’ll examine here are the foot and the ear, although other places on your dog’s body can be at risk too.
Firstly, in between the toes of any foot, referred to as the interdigital (literally between the toes) space (pictured).
The grass seed already attached to the surrounding soft feathery fur now makes its way towards the foot itself, penetrating with ease the thin skin before starting to burrow deep into – and through – highly sensitive tissues of the foot resulting in extreme pain, discomfort, infection and sudden onset (acute) lameness.
Time and vigilance are of the essence here as the longer grass seeds are left on your dog unnoticed and untreated, the more likely they are to burrow right through the skin, track up the paw, then the leg, sometimes even reaching the chest cavity. There are plenty of recorded cases where a single grass seed has travelled all the way from the toes only to end its journey deep inside the heart!
Occasionally you’ll get lucky. Either the seed’s just been noticed and removed from your dog’s fur, not having had the chance to pierce the skin yet, or it’s only just that second punctured the skin and can easily be pulled-out without any sedation at all; the tiny puncture wound is then simply bathed and treated.
But more often than not, the grass seed has already burrowed its way into your dog’s foot and now requires heavy sedation or even a general anaesthetic to attempt to locate and hopefully extract this most frustrating of foreign bodies.
This technique usually involves numerous ‘blind’ attempts of fishing around through the entry-hole with a specially designed long pair of tweezers called crocodile forceps (pictured).
As grass seeds are made from vegetable matter they’re invisible on X-Ray (unlike bone or metal) so their exact location within the paw is usually a mystery. Sometimes a second hole is detected where the grass seed has already travelled through the entire foot and exited through the other side leaving a narrow empty tunnel connecting the two, or ‘sinus’.
The second most common place for these seeds to cause problems is down the ear canal, as once again their unidirectional nature and shape makes pretty sure that by the time your dog is on the examination table, the grass seed has already worked its way from the fur around the ears down along the ear canal, and come to rest right up against the delicate ear drum.
It’s no wonder that these dogs usually present frantically pawing and rubbing the affected ear on the ground, and find it incredibly painful to touch or even examine the ear with an auroscope to even confirm the diagnosis.
As a result, with incredibly brave dogs they can be successfully and safely removed with the same long tweezers used earlier but it’s usually preferable once again to sedate enabling your vet to fully visualize the seed and carry out its safe removal, whilst checking for others, as well as making sure the ear drum’s intact.
As with all clinical conditions affecting our pets, prevention is always better than cure.
Owners of all dogs, especially more vulnerable breeds, should make sure the fur on their paws, toes and around their ears is kept trimmed very short during the summer and autumn months. Sometimes even booties can be worn when going outside.
Every inch of your dog should be routinely checked after returning home from every walk and checked for grass seeds, as there are a few other places on your dog’s anatomy, including eyelids and lip folds, where they can get stuck and cause similar problems.
So if you notice any of the above signs, especially head-shaking or paw-licking or any other abnormality then please always call your vet asap for the most successful treatment outcomes.
Finally please also help to raise awareness and tell others – especially first-time dog owners – of the symptoms to look out for, as a tiny little grass seed can often be the cause of one of the most painful, expensive, and commonest conditions our beloved dogs can suffer from.