Catie has her A.S. in veterinary technology and has worked in the veterinary field for nine years.
Nasty Little Buggers
Many a dog and occasionally cats arrive at the veterinary hospital with their owners concerned that their animal is limping, licking their arm, licking their toes, licking their private bits or shaking their head incessantly. There is a laundry list of possible diagnoses to rule out when presented with the above chief complaints. Some of which include allergies, orthopedic or soft tissue injury, dermatitis, urinary tract infection etc. But if I could tell you one thing, it never ceases to amaze me how often the culprit of so many types of symptoms are those nasty, tiny, itchy, scratchy, nightmarish, little seeds.
The Anatomy of the Enemy
Fox tails are so destructive and able to prey on their victims in many different modes of attack due to their anatomy. The weed seed is approximately two millimeters in diameter in a convex shape. The head of the seed is pointed for the sharpest penetrating power into the first unsuspecting fur baby. Long thin barbs stray off of the head of the seed. These barbs although thin, are sturdy, they can fall off of the head of the seed and cause damage on their own. The direction that the barbs splay widely from the convex head do not allow those little suckers to reverse. So whatever part of your pet the weed seed ends up at, the only direction for that little devil is the direction of the sharp convex head. Too often they are aimed towards innocent hairy bystanders.
Here's what we're up against folks. It is hard to say how much an individual grass awn weighs, but there is an approximation that it takes 1,000,000 weed seeds to make up one pound. ONE POUND. There are more weed seeds in my backyard than there are people and their pets in the world.
Due to their leather jacket with silver spikes on the shoulder anatomy and their staggering numbers, the damage that weeds seeds can deal is impressive. They can penetrate skin, can be found in any orifice on our furry friends and even make their way under eyelids.
Every veterinary technician has their stories and I've got my fair share of weed seed tails of woe. Here's a list and brief stories of the most brow raising weed seed locations.
Properly called the axillary regions when discussing the anatomy of our canine and feline friends, I have also seen many a weed seed in the inguinal spaces (or "panty lines") of my patients. I have learned that it does not matter what length of hair your pet has, weed seeds can give them a hard time. However, I have noticed that on my personal dog, Kimber the springer spaniel, when the hair in her axillary and inguinal spaces gets tangled or starts to matte, weed seeds get caught in the knots and have penetrated her skin in the past.
The amount of poor tootsies I've examined with injuries due to weed seeds is just depressing. Because of the aerodynamic nature of the devil's seed, they work their way up right between the metacarpals and metatarsals (aka tootsies) and burrow into the equivalency of the webbing between our fingers. They fester there, causing infection, inflammation and pain. Patients with a weed seed gone foreign body often lick the affected area and in some cases limp consistently. I have seen a couple of weed seeds that migrate up towards the patient's carpus (wrist for humans). One of the doctors I work with chased one over months in a patient's arm all the way up to its elbow where it then exited the body on its own. The only treatment for this is removal, often patients have to be sedated and we fish (gruesome I know) the weed seed out, often blindly. These suckers cannot be seen on radiographs (x-rays) so we do the best we can.
Once I got really lucky. I had a patient that was licking between its toes and limping consistently. The patient was nice enough to let me handle his sore paw and take a look between his toes. Sure enough, there was swelling, inflammation and infection present. What was also present, was one skinny little fox tail barb sticking out of a tiny opening in the skin. Sure it was satisfying grabbing that thing by the tail and preventing it from any further black magic on my patient. But what was really satisfying was telling and showing the veterinarian the news before she even saw the patient. Yeehaw!
The hairs around the opening of the ears, on dogs especially, are absolute magnets for grass awns. Once again, the aerodynamic anatomy, and inability to move backwards of these barbed little trolls allows them to migrate into the ear canal. You can imagine how much tickling and irritation this can cause. Patients often present at the clinic due to head shaking consistently. In order to visualize the foreign body and tympanic membrane (ear drum), veterinarians use a piece of equipment called an otoscope. Otoscopes are the same exact things that human doctors use to look into your ears, the cones for animals are just a bit longer. Sometimes, the ear canal is very sore due to the trauma that the weed seed and head shaking has caused. Occasionally, infection is also present. When the ear is too sore for patient tolerance, patients can be lightly sedated. Patients have to be very still while the removal of the weed seeds is carried out. The veterinarian will pass a tool called alligator forceps through the otoscope and gently grab the foreign body, effectively removing it (sometimes them). The grass awns are sometimes very close to the tympanic membrane, this is why stillness is so important. The last thing anyone wants is for a patient to shake their head at an inopportune time causing the alligator forceps to damage the ear drum.
I have seen a handful of cases where the weed seeds have caused a hole in the patient's tympanic membrane or ruptured it entirely. This can cause infection, major discomfort and imbalance.
Another side effect, remember the head shaking? Some patients shake their head so hard, for so long trying to shake the seed out that they damage capillaries in their pinnas. The pinna is the floppy part of the ear. Capillaries in the ends of the pinnas become damaged and leak blood into the subcutaneous space in the pinna and cause a pocket of blood. The only effective treatment for this is surgical correction. This can happen on either ear or both at the same time.
I have experienced two cases where patients had weed seeds caught underneath their third eyelid or nictitans membrane. These patients present with acute squinting one or both eyes constantly, pawing at the eyes and ocular discharge. I remember one case in particular where the patient was well trained and so obedient that we held his head still very gently with the owner and the veterinarian removed the weed seed with some thumb forceps. The patient felt immediate relief and the foreign body had not caused any ulcerations to the cornea.
Again my own poor Kimber falls victim to the plants. We were being lazy one morning on my day off, we cuddle hard core on these days. Eventually we got out of bed and Kimber could not take more than a couple of steps before sitting and going to town on her lady bits. It only took about ten feet for me to realize there was something really bugging her. I put her in maintenance mode (on her back, she knows to be still) and began to search for the cause. I checked her toes, her inguinal spaces, her belly, her bum, everywhere. There was only one place left to check. I examined her lady bits and GUESS WHAT. One of those dang weed seeds had set itself just inside her vulva. I gently removed the weed seed and she went along her marry way. Although Kimber experienced immediate relief, I cringed thinking about how uncomfortable that weed seed must have been, and made sure she got an extra treat with breakfast.
We had a patient sedated for a different reason at the hospital one day. The head technician noticed that the patient's dude bits were "out" rather than "in", she examined the area and GUESS WHAT. There was a freakin' fox tail foreign body penetrating the skin of the patient's dude bit. Again, I cringe.
I am proud to say that we have very capable veterinarians and equipment at our hospital. So much so that we often get referrals from other hospital when they run out of straws to pull. A patient presented with unstoppable epistaxis (nose bleed), mostly when the patient sneezed. The owners and the patient's regular doctor were out of ideas, options and money. The patient was placed under anesthesia and we began by just using an otoscope to visualize and examine the nasal passages. The veterinarian performed his exam and saw something suspicious. He used the alligator forceps to manipulate a suspect foreign body, he grabbed a hold of whatever was in this poor dog's nose and GUESS WHAT. The veterinarian said, "We're gonna be heroes!" as he pulled out an entire stem full of weed seeds approximately six to eight inches long if my memory serves me. One of the most epic moments, we still have no clue how that whole thing got up there.
We acquired a pretty fancy endoscope this fall. We had another patient present with respiratory discomfort that did not improve with medications. We sedated the dog, placed and endotracheal tube for oxygen and passed our endoscope into the patient's lung. It wasn't long until GUESS WHAT! We found a weed seed in this dog's lung. Just sitting there, causing as much irritation as it could in its comfy home it found. We removed the seed and the patient experienced immediate relief.
What Do We Do?
Prevention is the key to fighting the good fight against weed seeds. Every day when I get home from work, I greet my dog and we do some grooming. I check her entire body for weed seeds or other plants that like to hitch a ride on her. I look on the outsides of her ears, between her toes, under her armpits. We also brush her teeth and trim her nails. She loves the attention and she is trained to let me do anything to her. I started this practice when we got her as a puppy and it is one of the best things I ever did for her.
If you have a pet that is not so tolerant, simply giving you pet a details belly rub, or holding their paw a second longer to look for weed seeds after they "shake" can make a big difference. A full body search may not be necessary everyday, but you should pay extra attention to your pet's hair coat during spring, summer and fall. In winter (if you live in a cold place) you're pretty much good to go.
If you find that your pet is experiencing any symptoms mentioned throughout this article, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Some veterinarians have the option to drop off you pet and pick them back up later in the day if you feel your pet needs to be seen as soon as possible. It is important to address any potential weed seed issues before they turn into something much worse.
Good luck this season and remember, a healthy pet is a happy pet.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Catherine Berry (author) from Belgrade on March 18, 2019:
Thank you! I'm so glad that you found it useful!
RTalloni on March 18, 2019:
So useful. Thanks for covering this so well. Another nicely done post!
Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on October 29, 2018:
A very informative article.
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 29, 2018:
Hi Catie, great article. I enjoyed your writing style and the way that you were able to present this problem clearly. Best of luck here at HP.