Friday, August 22, 2014

Cheatgrass and dogs don’t mix

Wild grass seeds can be deadly to pets

Express Staff Writer

Cheatgrass is the common form of “foxtail”-type grass in the Wood River Valley. Graphic by Kristen Kaiser

     As in many places in the West, summer in the Wood River Valley is the time for cheatgrass and other “foxtail”-type grasses to go to seed and turn meadows into danger zones for dogs.

     These grasses have hard, seed-bearing structures with sharp points at one end and microscopic barbs. They tend to grow rapidly in the spring and become dangerous when they dry out in summer and the spike clusters become loose.

     When they become embedded in a dog’s fur, paws, ears, nostrils or eyes, they work their way toward one direction—in. That can result in infection and even death.

     Karsten Fostvedt, a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum, said he treats three or four dogs for wild grass-seed infestation every week from late spring through fall.

     Fostvedt said he has removed seeds from dogs that have picked them up throughout the valley. He said dogs with ears that stick up are more vulnerable to infestation in their ears than are those whose ears hang down, such as hounds. He said the seeds tend to sit right next to a dog’s eardrum, and can puncture it and cause an inner-ear infection.

     Fostvedt said he tries to remove seeds from a dog’s ear by just getting the animal to sit still, but it’s a sensitive area and many dogs jerk their heads in response to his probing. The next step is to give the dog a sedative, and if that doesn’t work, a general anesthetic.

     The vet bill for removing seeds from a dog’s ear can exceed $200.

     Fostvedt recommends that if a dog can’t be taken to a vet immediately or without incurring the cost of an emergency visit, the owner put baby oil or other mineral oil on the affected area to keep it moist and reduce the seed’s ability to penetrate farther.

     In extreme cases, Fostvedt said, the seeds can be fatal because they migrate through tissues and can get into a dog’s spinal cord or lungs.

     Seeds easily become embedded between a dog’s toes. Experts suggest that dog owners check for seeds if they notice swelling or limping, or if their dog is constantly licking its paws.

      A dog shaking its head, tilting it to the side or scratching incessantly at an ear could be the sign of a seed deep inside the ear canal. A veterinarian needs to take a look using a special scope.

     Redness, discharge or swelling in the eyes, or squinting or pawing by the dog, may be signs of a seed lodged in its eye. Immediate veterinary care is advised.

     Discharge from a dog’s nose, or frequent and intense sneezing may be a sign of a seed lodged in a nasal passage.

     Seeds can find their way into other body cavities as well. So if a dog is persistently licking at its genitals, foxtails could be the cause.

     “I’ve spent an hour and 45 minutes going over my dog on two occasions this year because I inadvertently went into an area with cheatgrass,” said Bellevue resident and naturalist Kristen Fletcher.

     Fletcher, a former president of the Idaho Native Plant Society, said foxtail barley, squirreltail and cheatgrass all operate on the same principle—they work their way into an animal’s fur as a means of seed dispersal. In this area, she said, cheatgrass is by far the most abundant.

     A product called the OutFox Field Guard, which looks like a mosquito-net hood to put over a dog’s head, is available to protect pets from foxtail-type seeds. The product can be found at

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