Friday 15 December 2017

Danger lying in grass for dogs

THIS would not be the first time I have been behaving like a restless animal at a gate-post. Scratching. And always, it seems, between, or just below, the shoulder blades, some place that defeats almost all attempts at relief without the aid of a wooden spoon. The problem is usually caused by insects.

In the past, I have been a victim of mosquitoes, fleas, bed-bugs and ticks, the latter arriving from roaming field-dogs and wanderings through bucolic sheep pastures. The glow of a cigarette used to deal with ticks long ago in times of hay-blown youth.

I have met up with them again far from the green sheep folds of Erin in the scrub and brambles of the Iberian Peninsula.

The most recent annoyance (excuse me while I scratch) I have concluded has come from the tiny barbed hairs of the thaumetopea pityocampa, otherwise known as the Processionary Caterpillar, because at this time, that is what it is doing exactly with its crocodile file of compatriots.

Pity me, then, and any human -- more especially dogs -- that carelessly crosses its path or shakes its cocoon lairs in woodland of pine or oak.

Joined nose to tail in lines of wiggling, the colonies are now moving from the comfort of pine needle feasts and candy-floss nests seeking soft places in the earth for the next stage of development into pupae. There they will lie dormant until summer's rays of sunshine bring them fluttering forth as harmless moths on the wing.

Then they will mate, lay their eggs beneath pine and oak leaves beginning the whole process over again. All pretty harmless.

But it is only as caterpillars that they are a nuisance and a danger when on the move near woodland or along roadsides even.

Primarily natives of the European mainland, they are now being found in Britain and Ireland where they have arrived, like many another, as migrants on saplings to garden centres and onwards and upwards.

As caterpillars they pose risks as their hairy protective barbs are easily shed and will cling to footwear and clothing and can cause irritation, skin rashes and, penetrating breathing passages, spark off asthmatic attacks. It is easy to walk into a cloud of almost invisible particles.

Human discomfort, and some danger, there may be but it is mild compared to what can happen to ambling dogs who investigate this curious snake-in-the-grass, or race through a dust cloud picking up particles on their paws which are licked -- and that's where the real danger lies. Once the hairs are on the lips and tongue there will be itching, swelling, drooling and chomping. Veterinary attention is then urgently required and some unlucky dogs have had to have tongue surgery.

The caterpillars are on annual procession now, singing along to their own hymn sheet which directs barbed missiles to all intruders on their path. Be watchful and take care on those pine woodland rambles -- and keep your dog in check.

Sunday Independent

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