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Beware of Grass Awn Infections This Bird Hunting Season

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August 23, 2012

Beware of Grass Awn Infections This Bird Hunting Season

By Chad Love

I was perusing the Upland Journal bulletin boards recently and came across this thread about grass awn infections. Scary stuff, and with upland bird hunting seasons in many states set to kick off in the next few weeks, now is a good time to remind all dog owners about the very real dangers of grass awn infections. What are grass awns? I wrote about grass awns and CRP in a blog post last year but the information (and the warning) is, I believe, worth repeating.

Here's a good explanation from the AKC's Canine Health Foundation:

Grasses occur in a single large plant family that contains approximately 11,000 species (Chapman 1996). Although the grasses share many important characteristics of their reproductive structures, only a portion of the species have awns and an even smaller group possess barbed awns of the type of concern to dogs. The awn is part of the sheath that encloses the grass “seed.” The awns extend beyond the seed and those with barbs aid in dispersal of the seeds. One of the ways the seeds disperse is by attaching to things that come into contact with them.

Animals and their fur are important ways grass seeds get transported to new locations. From an ecological standpoint, the attachment of grass seeds to sporting dogs is an important natural process. From the perspective of dogs and their owners, it is a dangerous threat. The barbed grass awns, or “mean seeds,” attach to a dogs coat and pierce the skin or are ingested or inhaled. Once in a dog’s body, these mean seeds tend to migrate, leaving a trail of infection behind. These infections cause illness that is difficult to diagnose, and can even be fatal.

When you think about it, our dogs are perfect grass awn vectors. They're exactly the right height, they run through fields of grass at breakneck speed, and they're most likely (at least in training and some early bird seasons) to be in the field around the same time that grass seeds are drying and ready to hitch a ride. Awns can be ingested, inhaled, or they can enter through the eyes, ears or skin.

Grass awn infections and deaths in gundogs have become a huge problem in the past few decades, and if you hunt upland birds with dogs, it's crucial that you have the ability to recognize what types of grasses you need to look out for. Foxtail barley, cheatgrass, wild rye, all these grasses have been linked to grass awn infections in sporting dogs. And the bad thing about grass awn infections is that it's often very hard for vets to diagnose. Always tell your vet if you've been hunting or running your dogs in areas where problem grasses are found.

The best online aggregation resource I've found for grass awn ID and information is The Grass Awn Project. The site has case histories, plant photo galleries, diagnosis and treatment information and a wealth of other links and information.

I've been lucky in that I've never had to deal with a grass awn infection in one of my dogs. But just like rattlers, I'm afraid it's just a matter of time before I do. I always try to be aware of what kind of grass I'm hunting, and try to avoid areas of suspect grass, especially if the seed heads are still on. And always check your dogs after each run: eyes, nose, ears, toes, up underneath legs, anywhere that a grass awn may be able to find its way into your dog. And it goes without saying, if you suspect an awn infection, get your dog to the vet immediately.

Anyone ever had to deal with a grass awn infection in their dog? What was it like? How did it turn out?

Comments (4)

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from Big Bob W wrote 1 year 33 weeks ago

Thank you for posting. I have had to stop working on two training fields because of foxtail. I was aware of grass awns because of the article you wrote last year. Ran a hunt test just outside of Cheyenne, WY last summer and there was cheat grass. I checked my dog thoroughly after every series that he ran and after every airing/exercise period. I am a firm believer in the old axiom, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Great reminder.

Thanks again.

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from uplandfanatic wrote 1 year 31 weeks ago

I have never had to deal with Grass awn infection that i know of but in lamens terms my dogs get foxtails everywhere on them all the time. My parents have a great pyrenease who gets really bad infections in her feet from foxtails. they took her to the vet, vet had to perform surgery because they were so impacted. and after 10 days of anti biotics and keeping her off the feet she heeled up. now she gets shaved around the feet, ears, underside and anywhere the skin folds over and when she come back from a day in the field she gets thourogh checks. As far as what it was like: stinks very bad, produces lots of bloody, pussie discharge, and if its in the feet they will not walk on the one infected. I have however had personal experience in my labs getting foxtails in there nostrils and sucked into the nasal passage. the dog will cough and try to hack something up, they will paw at the nose, and sneeze alot. when one of my dogs starts doing anyone of those things I will get a mouth full of tap water and put both my hands around the dogs muzzle and hold it shut. I then put my mouth around the nose,just the wet part and make a good seal with my lips and blow the water from my mouth to the dogs nose. When you blow air you just want enough air to fill your cheeks and you dont blow hard. Whatever is in your dogs nose will come out whether its a foxtail or dirt or bugs. Also it washes the nasal passage clear of any seeds that might have clung on to the hairs in the nostrils. I have been doing this for about 6 years and have never had to take one to the vet for a foxtail stuck in the nose.

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from Kat Pippitt wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

This is a great article and one every trainer and hunter should read. Many of us are out in the field this time of year and need to be aware of the potentially deadly infections that grass awns can cause. I only wish I had been aware of the risks associated with grass awns last year. We lost our dog Shooter at a year and a half from a foreign body infection in his lungs. It's exactly what Chad Love says, the grass awns leave a trail of infection that is very hard to diagnose and if left untreated for very long can have deadly consequences. Three different vets, a week in and out of animal hospitals and finally a two day stay at a specialist and we still couldn't save him. It is so hard to lose a family, hunting dog at such a young age, but I'm glad we now know about the dangers of grass awns, signs and symptoms to watch for and ways to prevent exposure in the first place.

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from pdog13golf wrote 6 weeks 2 days ago

Can someone direct me to a vet that can answer some questions for me? Also has anyone heard of the awns that enter the chest and travel that come out by themselves? I have just a lot of unanswered questions that just keep me guessing. I have been chasing this since november. I have been in contact with my vet and the next avenue is cutting it open and looking around. any advice would be great. i know i am very vague but there is so much i don't know.

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from Big Bob W wrote 1 year 33 weeks ago

Thank you for posting. I have had to stop working on two training fields because of foxtail. I was aware of grass awns because of the article you wrote last year. Ran a hunt test just outside of Cheyenne, WY last summer and there was cheat grass. I checked my dog thoroughly after every series that he ran and after every airing/exercise period. I am a firm believer in the old axiom, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Great reminder.

Thanks again.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from uplandfanatic wrote 1 year 31 weeks ago

I have never had to deal with Grass awn infection that i know of but in lamens terms my dogs get foxtails everywhere on them all the time. My parents have a great pyrenease who gets really bad infections in her feet from foxtails. they took her to the vet, vet had to perform surgery because they were so impacted. and after 10 days of anti biotics and keeping her off the feet she heeled up. now she gets shaved around the feet, ears, underside and anywhere the skin folds over and when she come back from a day in the field she gets thourogh checks. As far as what it was like: stinks very bad, produces lots of bloody, pussie discharge, and if its in the feet they will not walk on the one infected. I have however had personal experience in my labs getting foxtails in there nostrils and sucked into the nasal passage. the dog will cough and try to hack something up, they will paw at the nose, and sneeze alot. when one of my dogs starts doing anyone of those things I will get a mouth full of tap water and put both my hands around the dogs muzzle and hold it shut. I then put my mouth around the nose,just the wet part and make a good seal with my lips and blow the water from my mouth to the dogs nose. When you blow air you just want enough air to fill your cheeks and you dont blow hard. Whatever is in your dogs nose will come out whether its a foxtail or dirt or bugs. Also it washes the nasal passage clear of any seeds that might have clung on to the hairs in the nostrils. I have been doing this for about 6 years and have never had to take one to the vet for a foxtail stuck in the nose.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Kat Pippitt wrote 1 year 30 weeks ago

This is a great article and one every trainer and hunter should read. Many of us are out in the field this time of year and need to be aware of the potentially deadly infections that grass awns can cause. I only wish I had been aware of the risks associated with grass awns last year. We lost our dog Shooter at a year and a half from a foreign body infection in his lungs. It's exactly what Chad Love says, the grass awns leave a trail of infection that is very hard to diagnose and if left untreated for very long can have deadly consequences. Three different vets, a week in and out of animal hospitals and finally a two day stay at a specialist and we still couldn't save him. It is so hard to lose a family, hunting dog at such a young age, but I'm glad we now know about the dangers of grass awns, signs and symptoms to watch for and ways to prevent exposure in the first place.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from pdog13golf wrote 6 weeks 2 days ago

Can someone direct me to a vet that can answer some questions for me? Also has anyone heard of the awns that enter the chest and travel that come out by themselves? I have just a lot of unanswered questions that just keep me guessing. I have been chasing this since november. I have been in contact with my vet and the next avenue is cutting it open and looking around. any advice would be great. i know i am very vague but there is so much i don't know.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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