Part of the joy of sharing your life with a dog is walking in the great outdoors enjoying the scenery. However, among the threats to a dog's well-being in nature are grass seeds.
Grass seeds (or awns) have microscopic barbs on them that can catch on your dog's fur if they brush past or run through a clump of grass. The grass seeds can then penetrate their skin and migrate through their body. In extreme cases, the seeds make their way into the vital organs including the heart and kidneys. Sometimes working dogs inhale the awns, which leads to lung disease, or have grass seeds deep down in their ear canal. Most problems with grass seed penetration are due to the bacteria that are carried into the dog's body with them.
Grass awn diseases are not easy to diagnose because the symptoms vary depending on where the awn has lodged itself. Symptoms include fever, abscesses, and swellings. Dogs may cough if their respiratory tract is affected, or show signs of lameness if the awn has penetrated their foot.
Researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia have been looking into ways to prevent grass-seed-related diseases. They have suggested that grooming is key to reducing the incidence of grass seeds entering a dog's body.
It would be fair to assume that dogs with a long coat would be most at risk of grass seed penetration, but it turns out this isn't the case. Dogs with medium-length fur were three times more likely to present to their vet with a grass seed problem. It appears that the culprit is the dense undercoat that is present in most dogs with medium-length coats; it traps the grass seeds and makes them hard to find.
Pet parents can still clip their dog's long fur to help prevent grass seeds, but it's essential that their undercoat is also removed. This is done with hand stripping tools that selectively thin out the undercoat. Pet parents can learn this grooming technique themselves or they can take their pet to a professional groomer to have it done. Dogs without a significant undercoat will still need a thorough grooming after an outdoor adventure to remove any grass seeds they may have picked up. It's important that the feet, ears, and head be checked closely, as these parts of the body are most likely to pick up a grass seed or two.
Grass seed diseases are often complex and costly to treat. Diagnosis isn't always straightforward. Treatment can involve hospitalization, surgery, and several types of antibiotics. Working dogs may not be able to do their job for months, which can affect a pet parent's competition plans or a farmer's ability to move stock. The American Kennel Club has developed the Mean Seeds Project to collect information on grass seed diseases around the country. They feel that by publishing case studies they can draw greater awareness to this issue and reduce the number of dogs affected.