Why are grass seeds so bad for dogs?

Summer time… Blue sky, bright sun, lush green foliage, grass waving in the wind like a green-gold sea… Well, perhaps not the first two in Britain! But there is one constant threat to our dogs in the summer months and that’s those pesky grass seeds.

The waving heavy heads of ryegrass, timothy, fescues and cocksfoot look lovely, and are an important feature of our countryside, but to dogs they are not just fun to run through, but potentially dangerous.

What’s wrong with grass seeds? Surely they’re just pretty?

Pretty, maybe. The trouble with them, however, is their shape. Because they taper towards one end, and have all those little barbs pointing the other way, once they get into something they don’t come out easily. In fact, they have a tendency to work their way further in. Some vets even refer to them (only partially as a joke) as “self forging”, like those bullets that dig their way through armour plate.

So what problems do they cause?

Well, it depends of course on where they end up. To explain why this is so bad, we need to look at how the dog’s body responds to a foreign body (the technical term for anything that gets in where it shouldn’t be).

All mammals, including dogs, have a really efficient immune system – the most ruthlessly xenophobic killing machine ever discovered or built. If it finds something that doesn’t match it’s built-in map of what proper dog cells should look like, it will attack it without mercy until the invading bacterium, virus, amoeba or worm is killed. And this is all very well and good, and why our dogs aren’t constantly dropping dead of colds. However, in the process, this inflammatory reaction (triggered to help kill the invader) damages the tissues nearby, causing pain, swelling, redness, heat and loss of function. If there’s a real invading disease or parasite, that’s a price the dog is willing to pay. However, a grass seed isn’t strictly speaking an invading organism – yes, it will carry some bacteria with it, but it cannot be killed or destroyed by the immune system. As a result, the inflammatory reaction goes on and on and on until either the seed is expelled, or the dog suffers severe symptoms, pain and distress.

So, where can grass seeds get stuck?

Pretty much anywhere! However, there are some sites where we tend to see them more often; dogs pick them up running about in the long grass.

  • Eyes – in the eye, grass seeds cause intense irritation, pain, usually with closed,  swollen, watering eyes, and dogs will often rub at them with their paws. Once in, the grass seed has three options.
    • Most commonly, it scratches or wounds the front of the eye, causing a corneal ulcer. It then falls out.
    • Sometimes, it can get trapped behind the eyeball.
    • Occasionally, it works its way into the soft tissues around the eye.
  • Ears – grass seeds are always falling down ears! The symptoms are of a really sudden onset ear infection with itching, rubbing, head tilting and often severe distress.
  • Nose – a grass seed up the nose is one of the most common reasons for a one-sided runny nose! Affected dogs sneeze and paw at their nose to try and dislodge it – but of course, the more they try, the deeper it goes.
  • Lungs – of course, if they inhale it and manage to dislodge it from the nasal passages, there’s a chance it will make its way down the windpipe. This can cause severe difficulty breathing and coughing as pneumonia develops.
  • Salivary glands – if the seed makes its way into the mouth instead of the nose, it can get stuck in the salivary ducts – the tubes carrying saliva from the glands to the mouth. This can make the blocked gland swell, becoming obviously enlarged and painful.

Paws – if a grass seed finds its way between the toes, it can penetrate the soft skin and dig its way deep into the foot, causing severe lameness.

How are they treated?

Sadly, there’s only one option – the seed must be found and surgically removed.

If you think your dog may have a grass seed stuck somewhere, make an appointment to see one of our vets!