Grass seeds can cause serious issues for pets
Blue, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is a friendly little dog: he is always cheerful, enjoying the company of humans, wagging his tail and looking for a pat on the head.
Last week, his behaviour changed suddenly. He stopped mixing with his family, instead staying in his bed, with his back turned to the room. This was the first sign of something being wrong with him, and it prompted his owner to look at him more closely.
She noticed that he seemed to be licking his left front paw more than normal, but when she tried to look at it herself, he refused to let her, pulling his foot away from her. At first she thought that he might have just had a nettle sting, or sprained his foot, but when he started to visibly limp on the leg, she realised that there must be something more going on, so she brought him to see me.
Blue was well behaved when I examined him, and he let me inspect his sore foot closely without complaining. He had a reddened, swollen area between two of the toes of his front left foot. I thought that I knew what was going on, but I didn't want to make a hasty decision on the diagnosis. I gave him some pain relief and antibiotics, and asked his owner to bathe the foot twice daily in warm salty water. I also asked her to bring him back in three or four days for a recheck.
When she came back, she reported that he had perked up almost immediately after the medication had started, returning to his normal friendly behaviour, and starting to walk more normally. However the redness and swelling between his toes had not gone away, despite the regular bathing, and that morning, something odd had happened. A tiny blister-like hole had appeared between the toes, and she thought that there was a bleb of something in the middle of the hole. What could it be?
This was exactly what I had thought might happen, and it was a good sign. As I examined him this time, I gently squeezed the swollen area, in the same way as a teenager might squeeze a spot, putting some pressure to push the contents of the swelling towards the small opening. As I did this, the tiny bleb popped outwards, like a grape seed being squeezed out of a squashed grape. I used a pair of forceps to grasp it, then I placed it onto a piece of cotton wool so that it could be seen more clearly. It was obvious what we were looking at: a small grass seed.
The sequence of events was now clear: the dog must have stood on a grass seed which had punctured the soft skin on the underside of his foot. The seed had been pushed right into the skin, then it had travelled through the tissues of his foot, causing pain, irritation and swelling. Then with the owner's bathing in warm water, the seed had gradually moved upwards and begun to push its way out through the skin between his toes. I had just helped the process along by squeezing the grass seed out, then removing it. Although I had suspected that this was the problem on the first day, it would have required radical actions to remove it (general anaesthesia, opening up the foot and searching for the grass seed). It was easier and less traumatic to allow nature to take its course. There was a happy outcome: Blue went on to make a full recovery, with his foot healing perfectly over the following few days.
Grass seeds seem like innocuous little objects, but they are designed in such a way that they regularly cause problems for animals. They have a sharp fibrous tip; it feels like a pinprick if you press it against the back of your hand. This tip is sharp enough to puncture soft skin, and that's exactly what happens. As well as that, grass seeds have a fibrous sheath that includes barb-like bristles. This means that they can only move forwards in the same direction that they have penetrated a surface: the barbs prevent them from moving backwards, out of the skin.
Grass seeds don't just cause problems with the feet: they can also affect several other parts of the body, causing a double problem: they irritate the animal, as well as carrying bacterial infection into the body.
Sore ears are common: in these cases, the grass seed doesn't even need to penetrate the surface of the body. The grass seed enters the opening of the ear while the dog is running through a meadow. Then due to its barbed surface, it steadily moves down the ear canal, until eventually it reaches the bottom, where it sits, pressed against the ear drum. This causes intense discomfort, with the dog vigorously scratching and rubbing at the ear. Affected dogs need to be taken to the vet for the grass seed to be removed carefully, usually under sedation.
Grass seeds are also prone to penetrating the lining of the digestive tract when dogs eat grass. They can puncture the oral cavity, the gullet, the stomach or intestines. They can then migrate through the animal's insides, causing pain and swelling wherever they end up. These cases can be baffling, with animals becoming unwell and the cause being difficult to find. Vets need to use all of their skills and diagnostic tests to track them down, even going as far as MRI scans in some cases.
Pet owners should never underestimate the disease-causing ability of the humble grass seed.