The dog days of summer are upon us. Presently, my lovely dog Willow is sleeping off the heat in some ornamental grass by the house.
As a gardener, each season presents its own set of challenges. My biggest gardening woe during the summer season, surprisingly, isn’t squash bugs, fire blight, or drought. It’s actually grass. Summer is a time when my ornamental grasses and spring weeds go to seed, and produce awns that pose harmful and potentially deadly consequences to my dog (and any cat that roams my yard, for that matter).
It wasn’t long ago that my dog was scratching at her eye. I thought allergies were the culprit, and initially wasn’t too concerned. Several days later her eye grew red and swollen and I knew a trip to the vet was in order. Our dog had a Mexican Needle grass awn lodged in the side of her eye. After sedation to remove the awn, antibiotics to treat an infection it triggered, and a $500 vet fee we were on our way with a new understanding of the dangers grass awns pose to pets.
What are grass awns?
Whether you call them awns, Downy Brome, cheatgrass, foxtails, or any other number of colloquial names, to dogs they generally mean one thing – trouble. An awn is a hairy, or bristle-like, appendage growing from the ear or flower of barley, rye, and many types of widely grown grasses. These spikes and sharp edges serve a purpose – to stick and hold fast to surfaces so that they can propagate and spread their seeds to surrounding areas.
While part of the purpose of awns is to have them attach to passing animals and be distributed to other areas, this relationship is by no means symbiotic. These sharp ends can allow the awn to act like the barb on the quill of a porcupine, moving it ever forward into the skin and tissues of a dog.
How Do Grass Awns Injure Dogs?
Pretty much any contact a dog has with grass awns can be potentially hazardous. Grass awns can be inhaled, become lodged in the ears, swallowed, or even just imbedded in the coat or skin. It is when they are not quickly removed by the owner, or expelled by the animal, that they become problematic.
Obviously, this risk has quite a bit to do with where you live. A city dog is far less likely to come across awns, but even the most urban locales still have areas that have become overgrown with all types of vegetation. So, a working dog used for tracking or hunting might come across awns regularly, but an urban dog that spends a few moments exploring a neglected back alleyway might be even more at risk. The problems occur mainly when dog owners are unaware of the affect that awns can have to their dogs.
The “Bad” Grass List
Sometimes, knowing what not to plant is just as important as knowing what to plant. The following is a list of the most common grasses, identified by dog owners and veterinarians (and compiled by The Grass Awn Project), that pose a potential hazard to pets.
Cheatgrass/Downy brome Bromus tectorum
Ripgut Brome Bromus rigidus
Canada Wild Rye Elymus canadensis
Foxtail Barley Hordeum jubatum
Needle and Thread Stipa comate
Western Needlegrass Stipa occidentalis
California Needlegrass Stipa pulchra
Mexican Needle Grass Nasella tenuissima and Stipa tenuissima
Sleepygrass/Tall Needle grass Stipa robusta
Red Three-Awn Aristida longiseta
Single-Awn Aristida Aristida orcuttianas
Oldfield Threeawn Aristida oligantha
What if I have these grasses?
If you like these grasses and don’t want to get rid of them in your yard, here are several ways to prevent them from harming your pet.
- Prune awns off ornamental grass before you allow your pet access to that area.
2. Weed wack and dispose of grasses with harmful awns, such as foxtails, before they go to seed.
3. Check pet’s coat and feet for awns regularly.
4. If your pet has a long or shaggy coat, it can be beneficial to have their hair trimmed short during the summer months to reduce areas awns can lodge and ease awn inspection.
For more information on ways to protect your pets from grass awns checkout The Grass Awn Project. And as always, happy gardening!