Dr Sophie Bell, a veterinary surgeon based in Salisbury, on the dangers of grass seeds to dogs:
Grass seeds might be small, but they can pose a real threat to our pets, especially during late spring and summertime.
They’re attached to the tops of long grass stems and can easily brush off onto your dog. Their pointed tips can penetrate the skin leading to multiple problems which if left untreated can become serious.
The areas most affected are between the toes, commonly known as the interdigital area, the ear canal and under the armpits.
How can I tell if my dog has been affected by grass seeds?
If you think your dog may be suffering from grass seeds, you should check if they’re showing the following symptoms:
- Excessive licking and worrying of the area
- Head shaking if the seed is in the ear
- Swelling and pain at the site
- Discharge, sometimes pus
- A small visible hole where penetration occurred
- And systemic symptoms such as a fever, being lethargic and off food
What problems can grass seeds cause dogs?
The seeds can get into your dog’s ear canals and cause extreme irritation. Your dog will often show marked head shaking, pawing at the ear and their face, creating hotspots which are areas of sore skin on the side of their face and potentially going off food, feeling lethargic and holding their head to one side.
Even if you were to apply an ear cleaner at this stage, the barbed seeds mean that they’re unlikely to become free and often need removal by your vet.
If you did clean your dog’s ear and the irritation appeared to improve, this could be a sign that the problem was just wax.
I have witnessed seeds migrate to the lungs of dogs causing abscessation. These dogs have presented with long term waxing and waning illness which has improved with medication then slowly deteriorated. After further investigation, usually a CT scan, the seed has been found.
It’s important to know that grass seeds will not show up on a normal x-ray. Sometimes, for grass seeds that are in superficial skin areas, a dye can be used alongside normal x-ray to locate them.
Grass seeds can get into your pet’s eye, although this is rare. You may not be aware of this unless your dog shows signs such as marked irritation, redness and pawing at their face. They can rapidly cause problems, and which potentially can lead to the loss of the eye.
As a veterinary surgeon I faced this exact problem with my own dog Chops last month. At bedtime, all appeared to be fine. There was no evidence of any issue with his left eye. By the morning he was in severe pain and had gone blind and needed an urgent operation to remove his eye.
We had no clue what the cause was at this stage as there were several diagnoses on the list. His eye was sent to the lab technician who later confirmed it was a foreign body that had caused the problem; very likely a grass seed.
But as they can be so very small, we may never have seen it when the surgical site was flushed out. Thankfully he made a full recovery and is managing just fine.
How can I prevent grass seeds affecting my dog?
There are a few things you can do.
Grass seeds will find it easier to get into your dog’s coat if it's thick and especially if it's matted. Regular brushing is important.
You should introduce a brush from a young age and use it after your walks to check for seeds. Where appropriate, it may be better to keep the coat shorter in those breeds who appear more prone to picking up grass seeds such as spaniels.
For all breeds it is important to check the feet regularly. Feel in-between the toes and closely inspect around and in-between the pads. It’s a good idea to have the hair between and around your dog's paws trimmed and to clip away the hair from in-between the pads. I’d advise taking your dog to a groomer to have this done. Also, you should feel under the armpits, you could consider having this area clipped short too.
First aid tips
One first aid tip for dealing with grass seeds would involve placing a poultice to the affected area. This is only possible when dealing with seeds on the paws. The process involves mixing milk and bread together to make a thick paste. Warming it for a few seconds can usually help make a better consistency. Once the paste has cooled it can be applied to the affected area on a piece of cotton wool or gauze swab.
A bandage can then be applied over the top to hold it in place. This is not a replacement for your vet, this is to help draw the seed out whilst you wait for the appointment to see the vet.
Remember grass seeds can migrate around the body and end up in worrying places such as the lungs. Therefore, you do not want to use a poultice any longer than overnight, to see if it is able to draw the seed out. Frustratingly the seeds are often barbed so sometimes your vet needs to make a small incision under sedation to remove it.
Please check your dog’s coat regularly and pay special attention to the problem areas; keep on top of grooming and maintain good ear health.
A poultice may help but it is only to be used whilst waiting to see your vet. Grass seeds may be small, but they can cause huge problems if they are not removed quickly.
Sophie Bell is a senior vet based in Salisbury. She teaches first aid courses for dogs through her business Animal Love First-aid.