Sadie is a very sweet 17 month old Springer Spaniel who made a visit to the Emergency Clinic on July 4th for swelling and irritation in between her toes. When she arrived for a follow up exam at our clinic on July 5th , she had become quite depressed and wasn’t eating well.
Sadie has beautiful, soft, long black and white Springer hair with feathers between her toes and long fluffy ears. My staff found about 100 burs and grass awns/foxtails stuck in her hair coat. Grass awns (Bromus tectorum L) also known as fox tails or cheat grass are small (approximately 0.5 cm long, ¼ inch) seeds that come from weeds. They have microscopic one- way barbs that work their way into the hair and then into the skin and cannot back out (like a fish hook or a porcupine quill).
Grass Awns or Fox Tails
The most common location to find them is between the toes. When I shaved the hair between Sadie’s toes I found 3 entry holes in one foot and 4 in another foot. Her toes were red and swollen twice their normal size and the holes oozed serum from the draining tracts that the grass awns create as they migrate up the legs.
I cringe when I see these because they are a surgeon’s nightmare. It is not uncommon for me to spend long, unrewarding hours searching under the skin for these barbed seeds. In one case I had a Springer spaniel where the grass awns had migrated from the toes almost all the way up to the elbow.
There are several reports about Springers in which the grass awns stuck on the sides of the chest penetrated into the chest, carrying bacteria into the wounds and causing a pyothorax (infection in the lung field). I had one case in a Vizla where the grass awn had penetrated in between the ribs and was almost into the chest cavity when I removed it.
We gave Sadie lots of pain relief medication and our groomer Jess shaved Sadie’s hair coat off everywhere except the outside of her ears which were combed thoroughly and cut shorter. This makes it much easier to find and remove these grass awns and to spot infections early. Jess soaked her feet and we flushed an antibacterial solution up into the wounds several times. However, Sadie’s toes remained extremely swollen and she continued to be depressed.
We decided to take her to surgery to remove the grass awns. After we put her on IV fluids and induced anesthesia I began exploring upward from the entry wounds with hemostats in an attempt to grab the grass awns and pull them back out. I followed the track that continued up past her paw to the beginning of her leg where it finally ended.
Unfortunately no grass awns were recovered. I flushed several times with an antibiotic solution and placed a drain under the skin to allow the foreign material to wash out with repeated flushing after surgery. Sadie’s family took her home and flushed the wounds several times each day and soaked her feet. She returned in two days to have the drains removed and her toes were still extremely swollen and red. Discouraged,
I scheduled her for another surgery the next day. It is not uncommon to have to do this surgery repeatedly until we find the grass awns. However, when Sadie showed up for her surgery, the swelling was finally decreased in her toes and the redness was almost completely gone! Sadie was back to eating and acting like her normal self which was a huge relief to us.
To prevent grass awn problems with your pet: Keep weeds cut down and removed from your yards. Replace any plants that have grass awns with a sturdy groundcover. Keep your pets coat short and groomed and shave between toes, especially during the spring and summer. This will make it easier to see grass awns. Perform daily inspections of your pet’s hair coat (it only takes one day!) especially between toes. Keep pets out of dry grassy fields. Watch for sneezing(they can get stuck up their nose), drooling, shaking their head, scratching ears, whining, depression, not wanting to eat or other signs of illness possibly related grass awn migration.