Gardening 101

The Dangers of Grass Awns

Recently a friend of mine had a very sick Labrador retriever. After consulting with a surgeon, along with a canine radiologist and internist (and spending $5,000), it was determined that a grass awn had caused the abscess on her neck, an abscess the size of an egg. This was the first time I had ever heard of the dangers of grass awns. It turns out that the threat to dogs is so real that the American Kennel Club has issued an advisory.

Several years ago I planted fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) in two planters near my front door. Every time I brushed against their inflorescences, the tiny, pointed spikes would attach themselves to my shirt, ultimately working their way to my skin and causing great discomfort. These were grass awns. The awn is that part of the grass sheath that encloses the grass seed.

A grass awn is shaped like an arrow with barbs, enabling the awn to move quickly in one direction only. Once the awn has punctured the skin—easy to do as the barbs are quite sharp—it moves deeper into the body. When the grass awn burrows into the dog’s skin, ears, eyes, nose, or feet, it then continues to migrate throughout the body, creating infection in major organs. Compounding the problem is grass awns are very small. They easily detach from the plant, clinging to anything that brushes against them.

For a long time veterinarians assumed that the problem with grass awns was limited to west of the Mississippi where the foxtail brome, a prolific producer of grass awns thrives. Dog clubs especially fear the bromus species, consisting of over one hundred annual and perennial grasses, because their inflorescences produce deadly grass awns. Compounding the threat is the species are gradually moving eastward.

The bromus are not the only culprits; rye grasses from Virginia and wild Canadian rye grasses also generate dangerous awns. Because these seeds are inexpensive, farmers will frequently use them for ground cover. Some ornamental grasses, such as the pennisetum species, also produce grass awns while others do not.

Dogs such as spaniels and retrievers who spend much of their time outdoors are especially prone to picking up grass awns, as are dogs with thick, long coats since the awns frequently go undetected. What is important to remember is that all dogs are at risk. Because cats are good groomers, grass awns do not pose quite as serious threat to cats as they do to dogs.

There are basic preventative measures you can take to protect your dog. Cut any wild or ornamental grasses that produce these awns. Check your dog thoroughly after a run or walk in wild area. Remember, not all grasses produce grass awns, but it’s best to be proactive when it comes to the safety of your pet.

A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener and a member of the Durham Garden Forum Advisory Committee.

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