Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Walk Through the Grass at your Peril

You wouldn't think something as simple as taking a walk would be painful or life-threatening. And it rarely is immediately. There is, however, a hidden danger in the long, uncut grass on the verge, or in the field, or in the park, or even in your own garden. The Brits call them "grass seeds"; the Americans call them "foxtails".

The San Francisco Dog Owner's Group has produced a document which includes some good pictures of the species of plants involved.

I always dread seeing canine patients from July through September since this is what we call "grass seed season". This is the time when the warm sunshine of late summer induces the grasses to put up their seed heads. As the seed heads dry out the seeds (or "awns") are dispersed. A dog brushing against the seed head as he runs through the field will later find multiple awns caught in his fur. Because of the arrow-like shape of the awns they can only migrate in one direction and if that direction is "into the dog" it then becomes a fight to get them out again.

The dog breeds that have the most trouble with grass seeds are the spaniels and other hunting breeds. These dogs have longish hair and dangly ears -- perfect for collecting grass seeds. The seeds can penetrate the skin and most often do so between the toes. They can also get caught in the eyes (especially behind the 3rd eyelid), in the ears, and inhaled or swallowed. They are initially simply irritating -- the eye becomes red and weepy, the ear is itchy and produces copious amounts of wax, the skin develops a red raised area that can become infected -- often the owner is alerted to a problem when the dog starts limping or licking the foot or shaking his head.

The seeds become life-threatening if they are not removed. Infection is just the tip of the iceberg. They can migrate up a leg slowly month after month and eventually end up in the chest -- one was reportedly removed from a lung.

They are notoriously difficult to find. They are not visible on xray, so at times it is like searching for a needle in a haystack. We use long thin forceps (alligator/crocodile forceps) to probe the sore area of the foot in an effort to blindly retrieve the foreign object. In the ear, an otoscope makes the procedure a bit easier as you can sometimes visualise the seed, but then retrieving it without puncturing the ear drum or pushing the seed further in can be nerve-wracking!

An ounce of prevention in the case of grass seeds is worth pounds and pounds of cure! Firstly, in your own garden, mow the lawn frequently enough to prevent the seed heads from maturing (they are not dangerous when the are green). Petition your local authorities to maintain public parks and other areas for the same reason. Obviously in fields and wooded areas, areas that are allowed to go a bit wild for the wildlife, the frequent mowing isn't going to be an option. If you take your dog to these areas, check him CAREFULLY when you get home. Brush his coat thoroughly and examine his paws. When you look between the toes, part the hair so you can see the skin at the top-most part. Check the ears with a torch/flashlight and pull down the eyelids (if you dog will let you) to be sure no seeds have gone in. I often recommend to owners who have dogs with fluffy feet to have a groomer shave the feet to just below the carpal pad -- a "poodle cut" – during this part of the year. Trimming hair around the eyes and shaving/plucking the hair from around the entrance to the ear canal also makes a big difference.

If, as so often happens, you come home from work after the vet's has closed for the night and find your dog has been licking his foot all day, it is not a life-or-death emergency; you do not have to call the vet out that night (unless your dog is in extreme pain). Examine the foot to see if you can see the end of the seed poking out from the skin. Pull it out if you can see it. If not, and you are comfortable doing so, trim the hair way from the sore part of the foot. Soak the foot for 10 or 15 minutes in a chlorhexidine solution (if you have it) or a saline solution (1 teaspoon table salt in 1 pint of warm water). If your dog is keeping you awake licking it you can put an Elizabethan/Buster collar on or put a sock over the foot.

When you see the vet the next day, be prepared for the possibility of your dog needing an anaesthetic. Retrieving grass seeds is a painful process and unless your vet is very lucky to find it on the first probe or your dog is very laid back, they often need a bit of "chemical restraint".


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