Pheasant Hunting photo

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?