Spear grass poses a risk for pets — Times Colonist August 2016 —
Victoria’s hot, dry summer months mean long outdoor walks in the park for dogs and other pets. It can also mean the onset of skin problems from “spear grass.” Spear grass is the common term connected to any of the grasses with sharp, hard seeds, often with hooks, that cling to fur or clothing and can dig themselves into the skin or any other soft tissue.
“It keeps us busy,” said veterinarian Dr. John Basterfield of the Juan de Fuca Veterinary Clinic in Colwood. Basterfield said spear grass usually penetrates a dog or cat’s skin between the toes. Once under the skin it can lead to an abscess that can require medical attention, even surgery. Most horrifying, once the seeds have penetrated the skin, they can migrate far inside a body. Basterfield said he has seen seeds penetrate the skin of a dog’s chest, migrate through the muscles and end up inside lungs. Once, he found a seed nearly penetrating a dog’s spinal column. Spear grass can also become lodged in the eyes, noses and inside ears, where it can penetrate the ear drum and cause real problems. “And they can be very difficult to find,” said Basterfield. “So the sooner we can find a site then sooner we can get them surgically removed.”
Despite the veterinarian’s familiarity with the spear-grass problem, botanists say there is no one particular plant species that goes by the name “spear grass.” James Miskelly, a botanist with Saanich Native Plants Nursery and Consulting, said “spear grass” is whatever grass species is found in any area that grows hard, sharp seeds that stick to fur, clothes and dig into the skin. Miskelly said the two grasses on Southern Vancouver Island that most commonly get called “spear grass” are more precisely known as rip gut brome and wall barley. Neither are native species, but both have been well established for many years and are now common on southern Vancouver Island. “With both of those plants, if their seeds get stuck in a pet’s fur, then people will refer to them as ‘spear grass,’ ” Miskelly said. “But if you went someplace else, whatever sharp seeded grass species was found in that area you would find people calling it ‘spear grass.’ ” “It’s not any one thing,” he said.
Prof. Geraldine Allen, a botanist at the University of Victoria, said many plants evolve sharp seeds, with hairs, barbs and hooks that lock onto the hair coats of animals. This means the seeds get carried to new growing areas. Allen also said most wild animals have fairly short hair. So they can shake loose the seeds or drop them to the ground by scratching. But domestic dogs or cats have often been bred to have long, fine, fluffy coats, which don’t easily give up their sharp, seed hitchhikers. “And some dogs just love to bound through long grasses,” said Allen. “Then you have to take them home and clean them up.”
Which is precisely the advice Basterfield offered to pet owners for this time of year. He said to keep close control of your dog this time of year and steer them away from areas that look full of grass that has gone to seed.
After every walk or time outside, give your pet a quick rub- down with a grooming bush. Have a glance at the ears, where the sharp seeds can cause serious issues, and check over the flanks and skin folds where the legs connect with the trunk. Most important, check closely between the toes of your dog. That’s the most likely spot where sharp grass seeds will stick and lead to an irritation or an abscess.
“Just check between each toe, top and bottom,” said Basterfield. “It can become a little routine, every day at this time of year.”