The mean seeds of summer

Both dogs went to the groomer this morning looking fuzzy and adorable, and came back looking sleek and adorable as ever.

Schnauzers have what is called a hair coat rather than fur. Their hair grows continuously as ours does and they shed so little that I never notice any sign of their hair in my house or car. They don’t much like getting their hair cut every 8 weeks, but it has to be done or they become walking mats in a remarkably short time despite daily or every-other-day comb-outs.

They got there just in time today because the groomer told me that Reggie had several cheatgrass awns in her front paws, some of which came out bloody when they were removed and “she wasn’t too happy about it.” She has remarkably floofy (that’s a technical term) front legs, where the hair seems to grow the fastest, and apparently they conceal all manner of ills because I had no idea anything was in there.

Look at all that floof!

I am vigilant about grass awns for good reasons that I will explain. But first, a bit of background on the source, which in my state is most often (although not always) cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum, also called Downy Brome, Drooping Brome, Bronco Grass or June Grass) is considered an invasive species in rangelands in the western U.S. It is believed to have come from southwestern Asia along with contaminated grain from Europe in the late 1890s. It proved opportunistic and adaptable in the Great Basin Desert (parts of Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah) where it took over for native plants destroyed by livestock grazing. Its ability to produce a large number of seeds, its tolerance to grazing and resilience to wildfire, as well as its ability to germinate in either autumn or spring helped it compete very effectively against native weeds (source).

It is considered a threat not only as tinder for wildfire but also because the seed pods (also called grass awns or foxtails) stick tenaciously to animal hair coats and can work their way into the skin with painful and even fatal results. They most often get stuck between the toes, but also can become lodged in the ears, eyes, nose, throat or genitals, or be inhaled into the lungs. With their rigid, barbed structure, they move in only one direction and can work their way from the outer skin deep into the body and lodge in the internal organs (source). Many other grass species have awns of this type and I’m not a botanist so I’m not going to explore them all, but everyone has probably at one time or another gotten this type of what we used to call “sticker weed” in your socks or pant cuffs.

Cheatgrass (image source)

Even a superficially lodged grass awn can cause a lot of pain and infection for an animal. Rudy got one between his toes last year that required two vet visits and nearly $300 to remove (it was in so deep that they missed it the first time and it caused an infection). He had to soak his paw in Epsom salts for several nights in a row after the awn was extracted, which he was not happy about.

Poor poopsie.

I’ve heard horror stories of abscesses and surgery for awns, as well as a lot of jokes that local veterinarians have sent their kids to good colleges on the revenue they make just from removing cheatgrass. One even supposedly named his boat “The Cheatgrass” in its honor. Which is kind of funny and kind of not, especially for us pet owners.

The only prevention for grass awns is keeping pets away from them, which in my town is impossible because they are in every yard and every vacant lot. Reggie’s feet seem to suck them right off the ground and conceal them completely. The only cure is constant vigilance and immediate removal, which, believe me, I do try to deliver. I guess I could shave her front legs so the awns can’t hide. I’ve had to shave them before, and the results just are really not that pretty:

They’re not very happy about it, either.

I’m just glad we dodged the mean seeds this time without a vet visit. I shall have to add foxtail checks to our daily tick checks.


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