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Speargrass Causes Problems

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on May 7, 2011

Even if your vegetable garden is perfect, with mulch everywhere and no weed in sight, chances are you have some grass somewhere in your yard.  My 14 acres has lots of grass.  Some of it is the black speargrass awn. We used to throw speargrass at each other growing up.  Unfortunately, it is pretty harmful to dogs.

Nassella leucotricha Tracey Slotta @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Nassella leucotricha Tracey Slotta @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Grass awns are a serious problem for dogs in our area each spring and summer.  These weeds have a point and hairs that point backward, giving them the ability to work their way into a dog’s coat.  Eventually, if not removed, they can work their way into the skin and from there into major organs.  Surgery may be required to remove the grass awn and the resulting abscess.  Some dogs die of infection before the cause of the problem is identified.

Common names for these weeds range from speargrass to foxtail.  All are grasses that are most prevalent in late spring and early summer.  Many pastures and yards have these plants.  Some hay meadows or pastures are planted in rye or Texas Wintergrass as both are good forage.

Hunting dogs, or dogs that frequently run outside, are the most commonly affected.  The dog either inhales, swallows, or is stuck with the barb of the weed while running.  The weed then continues to work its’ way into the dog and leaves a trail of bacteria in its’ wake.  This problem is so common that there is a web page sponsored by the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association on the problem with case histories and treatment summaries written by both members and veterinarians.  You can find this information at http://www.essfta.org/Health_Research/grass_awn.htm.

Dogs with long coats, such as Poodles, are also likely to run into trouble with grass awns.  It is hard to see a weed seed up against the skin when the dog has lots of hair.  It is important to check every inch of the dog when he or she comes in from outside for these seeds.  Common places for them to lodge are between the toes, under the armpits, and in the ears.  If practical, a short kennel clip for the summer makes it easier to prevent such problems.

Prevention is the key to dealing with grass awns.  If you have a lawn, try to treat spear grass and foxtails as soon as you see them.  Use a herbicide rated for perennial grasses.  If possible, avoid training or other activities in fields during the peak grass awn season. If you dog runs through fields or plays where these weeds might be found, go over every inch of the dog’s body when he or she comes back home.  Short-haired dogs are not immune to these seeds, so check them as well.  If your dog starts to act “off” or ill, take the dog to your veterinarian and be sure and ask about grass awn infections.  Know your dog and check them frequently to prevent problems.  Do this and you can avoid most problems associated with grass awns.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gail Gardner from Go Organic May 8, 2011 at 10:27 am

I have had foxtails probably every place I have ever lived, but have been fortunate to only once have one work into the skin of one of my dogs. I do pull them out of their hair coat once in a while.

While I understand the desire to control what grows, I am definitely against spraying toxins. Better the small chance of one of these getting into your dog than they regularly romp in areas dosed with cumulative poisons.

I do recognize that many believe herbicides only selectively harm plants and small doses of toxins of all kinds are “harmless” but I can not agree with that hypothesis. The quantity and accumulations we are being exposed to are overwhelming and there is no way to know what the interactions between all these chemicals and our bodies are nor what the long term health impact is.
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Stephanie Suesan Smith May 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

I do not use pesticides on my place, but recognize that many do, so offer that option. I have had dogs who had skin lesions caused by speargrass, and know a field trainer who lost a dog to a collapsed lung due to it.

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