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Vile weed: grass-awn infection can kill an otherwise healthy retriever.

TEN YEARS AGO, Catherine Lewis had a sick springer spaniel that just wouldn't get better.

"The illness resurfaced every three months for a year," she recalls. "The veterinarian and I couldn't figure out what was wrong until Tai developed a full-blown pyothorax (a severe pus-filled bacterial infection) in his chest."

Tai's infection stemmed from a grass awn, or "mean seed," likely encountered while pheasant hunting. Such seeds generally enter the canine body cavity in two ways: Inhalation or puncturing the skin. They grow most anywhere, but are known to thrive in upland habitats and wetlands.

Following Tai's life-saving surgery--and the subsequent infection of six more of her dogs--Lewis became a leading authority on the subject, spreading awareness of grass-awn infection.

"The biggest red flag has always been a high temperature," she advises. "If your dog is at 103 to 104 degrees and there's no other explanation, it's cause for concern."

Unfortunately, symptoms are not consistent. Some dogs develop a visible abscess at the rear half of the ribcage, but others do not.

"At least if you can spot the abscess, the infected fluid can be drained and the seed removed," Lewis explains. "But if the abscess is too small to be seen, it tends to migrate to the spine. That's a difficult area to reach surgically. A lot of times the dog can be saved, but not without affecting its quality of life."

Watch for subtle signs your dog isn't feeling well, and keep apprised of any lingering illnesses. Your dog may 'appear to improve through prescribed antibiotics such as Clavamox, but awn infections almost always come back, and the situation can quickly become critical.

"A dog can have a great training session in the morning and be in severe distress by that evening," Lewis says. "Grass-awn infections can creep up that fast."

One of the most prolific and deadly mean seeds, Canada wild rye, is typically found in the Midwest and western states, though a friend recently spotted it surrounding a Pennsylvania marsh. Most cases of Canada rye infection occur through inhalation. The seeds pick up bacteria in the dog's mouth, carrying it to the lungs.

To Lewis' frustration, Canada wild rye is still an approved CRP grass. She has also spotted it on a variety of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and government-funded wetland easements.

"It's cheap and it will grow anywhere, so it's being readily used," Lewis laments. "It's very discouraging. Iowa and Minnesota are eaten up with it on CRP land."

Cheatgrass or Downy brome and grasses in the foxtail family are also major sources of infection. The sharp seeds penetrate the skin, and, because they are barbed, work slowly into the body cavity. There are many cases in which cheatgrass has entered between a dog's toes and worked all the way to the chest.

If mean seeds are abundant in your region, Lewis offers this advise: "If your dog is regularly at risk, I recommend a high-dollar insurance plan. It's a terrible thing to consider whether or not you can afford to treat your pet, and grass-awn infection surgeries are tremendously expensive."

For a more thorough list of mean seeds, visit

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Author:Wintersteen, Kyle
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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