Thursday, 2 August 2018

Against the grain

At this time of year, heat isn't the only danger for dogs …

This year’s exceptional summer has brought all manner of animal care issues to the fore: when to walk … whether to walk … how to keep your dog cool inside, and outside … all things that most UK dog owners are unused to having to consider. 

When it comes to dealing with heat, there are numerous strategies you can employ to keep your dog cool, and numerous aids to help you. Similarly for other summer woes, such as fleas and ticks.

Grasses can take all manner of
colours and forms.
Our current long hot summer may be causing issues for many animals and plants, but one group of fauna is doing very well, thank you, and that’s grasses. Grasses are one of the most versatile lifeforms, adapted to everything from luscious rain forests to deserts – not surprising, then, that they’re the most widespread plant type on Earth!

They are certainly varied, and many are wonderful to look at, with their wide range of colours, from yellow, red, and pink, to blue, purple and violet. But it’s once they’ve flowered and gone to seed that they become particularly problematic for dogs.

Seeds of doubt

Some grasses have evolved a survival mechanism that doesn’t do much good for our dogs’ survival mechanisms! The seeds of many common grasses develop at the end of long stalks, and have a sharp tip at one end, and one or more special barbs at the other. When a seed falls and hits the ground, the sharp tip catches in the soil.  Tiny movements caused by weathering enable the tiny, ratchet-like barbs to slowly pull the seed into the ground, increasing its chances of germination.

However, this also make for a particularly nasty hazard for our dogs. Those pointy-ended seeds easily catch in a dog’s coat, burrowing closer and closer to the skin, until, in some cases, the seed actually pierces it. At best, your dog will have a localised reaction, as his immune system fights the foreign body. Bacteria and organisms on the grass can also cause an uncomfortable infection.

By far the worst problem is when the seed breaks, and moves under the skin. Once there, a seed can travel to other areas of the body, and it becomes almost impossible to find. Seeds can also be inhaled, or work their way into the nose, mouth, or lungs. This more likely to happen to dogs who run through long grass, and in very rare cases, a seed can puncture an organ or lung, proving fatal.

This False Barley seed was surgically removed from Pippa's
ear … luckily, she was back to normal in no time!
At this time of year, it’s most common for seeds to become stuck in ears, eyes, and paws, but a dog can get them anywhere on his body. It’s also true that all dogs can be affected by grass seeds, although dogs with feathery paws, dangly ears – and those who like to ‘root around’ and snuffle in the undergrowth – are particularly at risk. Dogs who ‘snaffle’ things – you know the type! – can sometimes get seeds stuck in their gums or between teeth. This can be very painful, and prompt removal is a must, or it may lead to further complications.

Looking for trouble

It can be difficult to tell if your dog has picked up a grass seed, but there are some tell-tale signs to look out for.

Ear it is

If your dog suddenly starts shaking his head, or keeps an ear, or one side of his head lowered, or paws at an ear, it could be a grass seed – a common problem for Spaniels, Labs, and other working breeds. A careful visual check around the ear, and in the ear itself, is called for. If you see no signs of a seed, still take your dog to your vet, as they’ll be able check further inside the ear canal – don't try digging around in the ear yourself!

The eyes have it

Seeds in or around the eyes are easy to spot, and can often be carefully removed by hand. If you see swelling or excessive fluid coming from your dog's eyes or nose, it’s worth taking him to the vet for a quick checkover, just to make sure there are no foreign bodies.

Caught a lite sneeze

Sudden, violent sneezing isn’t uncommon in active or ‘outdoor’ dogs, and can be caused by dust, detritus, or tiny insects (again, more likely if your dog is a snuffler). If the sneezing continues, or your dog is obviously distressed, contact your vet promptly.

Paws for thought

If your dog has walked in, near, or through grass, then it’s ALWAYS worth checking his paws for seeds. Check carefully under the pads, in the long hair between the pads, around the claws, and up around the dew claws: seeds will usually stick between the pads.

If your dog is limping, chewing, licking, or showing an unusual interest in a paw, look for swelling and redness between the pads and toes, as a seed may have broken through the skin: you may even see a tiny hole. Take your dog to your vet, and they’ll be able to remove it safely.

Post-walk check

There are plenty of other areas that seeds can enter, so once you get home from a walk, give your dog a thorough once-over, paying special attention to the areas below, and removing any seeds you find in the coat.

  • Check in and around the ears
  • Check in and around the eyes
  • Check around the nose and muzzle
  • Check between the toes and pads
  • Check the armpits and groin area

The usual suspects

As with most things, prevention is better than cure, and a little care goes a long way in helping reduce risks. Grass seeds are a summer and autumn issue, so during these months, it’s worth avoiding areas of high grass coverage, and keeping running and snuffling to a minimum.

False Barley: a common culprit.
Not all grass seeds are equal, and two types of grass are a particular problem. ‘Grass darts,’ as they’re often called, or Hordeum murinum, to give them their proper name, is the prime suspect for grass seed related-injuries, and is probably the most recognisable to UK residents. This grass, which also goes by the name False Barley or Wall Barley, is the classic, feathery, sticky nightmare, so beloved of schoolchildren to throw at each other, and can be found almost everywhere. Even before it’s fully ripe, when it’s in its bright green stage, it’s a problem for dogs.

Bromus sterilis
Courtesy IJle dravik, Saxifraga
Jan van der Straaten
The second is Bromus sterilis, Barren or Sterile Brome, which has more of a weeping habit, and is also easily spotted and very common. Don’t be fooled by it’s laid-back appearance: it’s still a mean grass to get hooked by!

If your dog has had repeated issues with grass seeds, it may be worth clipping his/her coat. Clipping a coat around the ears, paws and ‘undercarriage’ can help to greatly reduce the chance of pick-up.

Don't lock yourself away

That concludes our look at what seems to be a growing issue this year – no pun intended. As long as the hot spell continues, it’s likely that grass seeds will be an issue, so be vigilant, watch where you walk your dog, and take care near grassy areas. Above all else, don't lock yourself away until the grasses have passed … get out and enjoy the great outdoors and the fine weather … just be sure to give Fido a thorough check after walkies!

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